Chapter 6: Infinite Variety: Variables of Characterization

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The 6th and final chapter of my PhD dissertation, Characterization in American Independent Cinema

Transcript of Chapter 6: Infinite Variety: Variables of Characterization

12 Chapter6 InfiniteVariety:VariablesofCharacterization Theidealreaderofnarrativesancientormodernmustbepreparedtorespondtothe emphasisofthenarrativewithrespecttocharacter,placingindividualityortypical connectionforemosttotheextentwhichthenarrativeitselfcallsforsuchpriority;but aboveallhemustbringtohisconsiderationofcharacteraversatilityofresponse commensuratewiththeinfinitevarietyofnarrativecharacterization. RobertScholesandRobertKellogg1 RoundandFlat ThischaptermightbeseenasyetanotherglossonthefamousdistinctionmadeinE.M. ForstersAspectsoftheNovelbetweenroundandflatcharacters.AccordingtoForster, roundcharactersarelifelikeandcapableofsurprisinginaconvincingway,2whileflat onesaremorelikelyunderstoodastypes,easilydescribed,perhapsinasinglesentence. ManyDickenscharactersareflat;Dostoyevskysareround.Toextendthistomovies,we mightsaythatwhilestandardgenretypesareflat,artcinemaprotagonistslikeGuidoin8 1/2areround.ThegeneralpatterninsuchaglossonForsterwouldbebrieflytoaffirm theappealofdistinguishingbetweentwosuchcategoriesofcharactersandthentodiscuss variouscomplicatingissues.Becauseflatsoundslikebad,thecriticmustbeatpains toshowasForsterhimselfdidthatsomewritersuseflatcharactersartfully.Andbecause twocategorieswouldseeminsufficienttoaccountfortheinfinitevarietyofnarrative characterization,thecriticwillwanttofurtherelaboratethedistinctionbyadding

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criteria,subdivideForsterstwocategories,orsupplementthemwithadditionalones. SeymourChatmanarguesthatroundandflatrefertothevariety(orlackthereof)ofthe characterstraits.3ScholesandKelloggassertthatthekeydistinctionbetweencharacters isreallyamatterofwhetherandhowtheirinnerlifeisexplored;4likewiseTzvetan Todorovdiscussespsychologicalandapsychologicalcharacters.5MiekeBaladdsthat flatcharactersareunchanging,whereasroundonesdevelop,6andshegoesontoplot variousrelationaldistinctionsbetweencharacters:theymaybemoreorlesspredictable, mayhavemoreorlessdetailedaccumulationsoftraits,andbemoreorlesssimilarto othercharactersinthenarrative.7ShlomitRimmonKenan,citingtheIsraelitheorist JosephEwen,organizesthedistinctionintothreescales:complexity(whichrefersto whetherthecharacterhasasmallorlargenumberoftraits),development(whetherthe characterchangesorisstatic),andpenetrationintotheinnerlife(whetherornotthe charactersconsciousnessispresentedfromwithin).8 Withincognitivefilmtheorytherehavebeenseveralattemptstoclarifyand expanduponForsterbyreferringtothespectatorscomprehensionofcharacterrather thantocharacterasatextualfigure.MurraySmithcreatesatypologyofsevencharacter dimensions:complexity,fixity,stereotypicality,plausibility,artificiality,centrality,and transparency,butgoesontocriticizetypologiesofcharacterforhypostasizingcharacter

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insteadofanalyzingthephenomenologyofcharacterconstruction.InplaceofForsters definition,Smithsuggeststhataflatcharacterwouldbeonethatneverchallengesthe stereotypeschemaitinvokesonfirstappearance,whilearoundcharacterwouldbeone wheretheinitialschemaissubjecttoconsiderablerevision.9ThusforSmith,thecrucial dimensionofround/flatisthetypicalityofthecharactersattributesasunderstoodbythe spectator,however,round/flatisnottheonlywayofaccountingfordifferentkindsof characters.PerPersson,complementingSmith,proposesthatthedistinctionbetween roundandflatshouldbebaseduponthewayspectatorsattributementalstatesto characters:aflatcharacterdefiesormakesdifficultmentalattributionprocesses,while aroundcharacterisonethatnotonlyallowsmentalattributions,butalsopresentsawide rangeofcuesandappraisalparameterswithwhichtoreasonandplayaroundwith.He continuesthatroundnessisthusaresultoftheinteractionamongthewayinwhichthe narrationplacesthecharacterinrichsituations,thepowerfulinferentialstructureoffolk psychology,andtheviewerscognitivecreativity.10PerssonalsocitesEdS.Tan,who writes,Thecharactersinqualityfilmsareround,inthesensethattheydisplaymore emotion,andthatemotionismoredevelopedthanthatoftheheroesinthepopular genres.11 ThesecognitivistformulationsrepeatmanyoftheelaborationsonForsterfrom

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literarytheory,albeitwithadifferentvocabularyandamorereceptionoriented perspective.Roundcharacters,accordingtoSmith,arelesseasilytypedthanflatones. AccordingtoPersson,roundcharactersaremorerichlypsychologized.Andaccordingto Tan,theiremotionaldevelopmentisgreater.Iagreewithallofthemthattypicality, psychologicalrichness,andemotionareverysignificantcomponentsofthekeyvariables ofcharacterization,andwithSmiththatroundnesscannotbereducedtoasingle dimension.ButIbelievethattheseelaborationsonround/flatcanbeclarifiedmorestill byconsideringthedistinctionbetweencharacterandcharacterization,bygrantingthat therearequalitiesofflatnessandroundnessthatdescribecharactersbutnot characterizationsandviceversa.Itisalsoimportanttoconsidertheeffectof characterizationonoursenseofcharacter,andonthedegreeoffitbetweenthetwo.I believeaswellthatdistinctionsamongcharactersaremorelikelytobedescribed effectivelyusingascalarcontinuumthanusingpairsofopposites,andthatfilmsmay havecertainaspectsofroundnessinsomerespectsandcertainaspectsofflatnessin others. Whatwilldistinguishthisglossonroundandflatfromothersisitsfocuson understandingcharactersratherthancharacterintheabstract,andondistinguishing betweencharacterasapersonlikeagentconstructedbythespectatoroutoftheencounter

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withnarrative,andcharacterizationastheprocessbywhichcharacterisbroughttolife. IfAmericanindependentfilmshaveinterestingcharacters,doesthatmeanthatthe charactersofindiecinemaaremorelikelytobewhattheliteraryandfilmtheoristsabove wouldcallround,whichistosaypsychological,changing,untypical,emotional,and possessingmanytraits?Andwhetherthesecharactersareseentobeflatorround,can somethingsimilarbesaidoftheircharacterization?ItisthesequestionsthatIwantto explorehere.IndoingsoIwilldiscussthreesubdistinctionsoftheround/flat opposition,borrowingsomeofEwenstermsandideas:depthofcharacterization(which includestheinnerlifeandmentalattributionsideasbutismorebasicallythedegree towhichthecharactersconstructionisinformative);complexityofcharacterization(i.e., thedegreetowhichthepresentationofthecharacterismultifaceted,straightforward, roundabout,contradictory,enigmatic,sophisticated,etc.,aswellasthedegreetowhich thecharacterherselfis);andcharacterchange(i.e.,theextenttowhichthecharacterand characterizationdevelop).Iamassumingthatforallthreevariables,onesideofthescale isclearlyunderstoodastheflatside(shallow,straightforward,unchanging)andtheother sideofthescaleisclearlytheroundside(deep,complex,anddynamic).Byusinga tripartitedistinction,itwillbepossibletoplotcharactersonascalethataccountsforboth roundandflataspectsofagivenindividualsrepresentation,ratherthanbeingforcedinto

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achoicebetweenoneortheother.Thepoint,however,willnotmerelybetogenerate anothertaxonomy,anotheranalyticalmodel,anothersetofterms.Irecognizethatthis taxonomyistoanextentarbitrary,toanextentredundantwithothers,andthatother taxonomiesmightbettersuitotheranalyses.Thepoint,rather,istoestablishabaselineof understandingaboutwhatmakesindependentcinemascharacterizationdistinctive. (SinceIshallweavemanyindependentfilmexamplesthroughthediscussionofthese threevariables,thischapterwillnotendwithacasestudyasitspredecessorsdid.Ihope thatmypointswillbewellenoughillustratedwithoutone.) InpreviouschaptersIhavealreadysuggestedmanywaysinwhichindependent cinemacharacterizes,andthischapterismeanttocomplementthosesuggestionsand bringthemtogether.ItisalsointendedtoechomanyofthepointsmadeinPartIabout thecognitiveprocessesusedinconstructingcharacter.Thisdiscussionisespecially closelyrelatedtoChapter2sdiscussionoftypes,sincetypingisoneofthedimensionsof theround/flatdichotomy.Thisdiscussionisalso,however,aimedatinvestigatingsome pretheoreticalnotionsaboutindependentfilmandaboutcharactermoregenerally,such astheideathatcharacterizationisbestconceivedasanarc,andtheoftheardsuggestion thatsomefilmsspendmoretimeoncharacterdevelopmentthanplotorviceversa. Weoftenassumethatnarrativesjudgedbyawideconsensusofcriticalopinionto

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beofhighaestheticvaluemusthaveroundcharacters,characterswhohavedepthand complexityandwhoundergosignificantdevelopment.Pretheoreticallyandintuitively thisappealstoourcommonsenseassumptions.Probingthecharactersofindependent cinema,however,wefindsomesignificantinstancesofshallowness,straightforwardness, andanabsenceofcharacterchange.Contrarytoourintuition,independentfilms sometimeshavestatic,straightforwardcharacterswhoseinnerlifeisnotmadeevidentto usinthefashionofMurnauandLang,BergmanandFellini,HitchcockandWelles.The characterizationmaycomplexifyacharacterwhoseisnotallthatmultidimensional,asin MementoandTheLimey,oritmaykeepusatsuchadistancefromacharactersinnerlife thatwecannotarriveatasatisfyingsenseofwhosheis,eithertemporarily,asinHard Eight,orevenintheendofthefilm,asinSafe.Inmanyfilms,suchasDownByLawand ReservoirDogs,thecharactersdonotundergomeaningfulchangeorthesortprescribed inscreenplaymanuals. Mythesisinthischapteristhatindependentcinemasapproachtocharacterization isinsomewaysbetterconceivedasflatthanasround:foraestheticeffect,many filmmakersconstructcharacterswhoareshallowratherthandeep,straightforwardrather thancomplex,orstaticratherthanchanging.Sucheffectsmaysatisfyanyofseveral

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functions:theymayfurtheranaestheticofminimalism,allowforgenrebasedplay,serve thematicgoals,produceambiguity,appealtoaconceptionofrealism,orbenecessitated byaestheticexperimentationorinnovationinotherareas.Theseeffectsandfunctions supportthethreeviewingstrategiesintroducedinChapter1.Flatnesseffectscanenhance thesenseofcharactersasemblems,canstimulateformalplay,andcanbeseenasan antidotetotheconventionalcharacterdepthofmainstreampopularcinema.However,by sayingthatflatnessisasalientstrategyofindependentfilm,Idonotmeantosuggests eitherthatindependentfilmislessthanithasbeencrackeduptobe,orthatthe theoreticalprojectofcategorizingcharactersalongscalescorrespondingtoroundnessand flatnessisinadequatetothetaskofunderstandingcinematiccharacter.Ihopethi