Assertion and Films

“Is Chatman correct in saying that films ‘present’ or ‘name’ rather than ‘assert’?”

Though Chatman admits that films can assert a property or relation by means of voiceovers, he claims that “the dominant mode” in filmmaking is “presentational, not assertive” (128). By this, he simply appears to mean that a camera does not describe in the same way a narrator in a literary work does. I agree with this, but, at the same time, are there other aspects of film that do assert something in the viewer’s mind? I am not talking about close-ups, establishing shots or freeze frames or disagreeing with his comments about the way narrative time functions in a film. I am thinking about certain descriptive details that are beaten into your head by a film but not by a literary work and also the messages that films, like literature, can and do assert.

Authors have the ability to be vague about certain details of description when they choose to thus allowing the reader to imaginatively fill in certain gaps. A filmmaker dealing with what is placed before the camera has to be specific in his/her selection of scenes, objects, actors, etc. One can argue that these details are simply presented before the camera, but when one takes into account the entirety of a film do such things appear to be asserted? We tend not to envision a character, place, or prop other than how it appears in whatever we are watching. Is this a kind of form of assertion? With the rise of our ability to freeze frame films and television whenever we like, are directors becoming increasingly assertive?

In addition, when we think of the messages, visions or themes presented in films and literature aren’t these also assertions? Chatman writes, “A film does not say, ‘This is the state of affairs’ it merely shows you that state of affairs” (128). If we reflect on films that we have seen, don’t they tell us what the state of affairs is in the world of the film?

I know that we are dealing with issues of semantics here, but, then again, Chatman’s “What Novels Can Do That Films Can’t (And Vice Versa)” does the same.

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One Response to Assertion and Films

  1. The different modes of function practically plays heavily when reading over this idea. Instead of insisting that narrative can or cannot be fully adapted in film, the argument of asserting tangible cues for an audience is presented. This is striking in the way that it almost seems to admit that the narrative cannot fully translate to film, but there are conventions of the novel that do not assert the audience as film can/does. Authors may leave certain things to imagination, but the filmmaker may translate them more specifically based on their personal vision. This completely asserts a tangibility that is absent in the novel. For example, this idea really works in the Lord of the Rings films, where parts of the story are taken from Tolkien’s appendices and spliced throughout the main work. This fills in the blanks of certain character arcs and ultimately asserts a more definitive take than the narrative at work. This idea of assertion is an interesting one, which seems to combat the “cans” and “cannots” in film adaptations.

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