Cinema = Reliable Narrator?

Does cinema inherently lack the ability to have a first person point of view? Does it create a distance between audience and character?

In MacFarlane’s essay, he discusses film’s inability to have the “continuing nature of the novelistic first-person narration,” and, when speaking of how film maintain’s that level of subjectivity, says, “one no longer has the sense of everything’s being filtered through the consciousness of the protagonist-speaksr: even in a film such as David Lean’s Great Expectations, which goes to unusual lengths to retina the novel’s ‘first-person’ approach, the grotesques who people Pip’s world are no long presented to the viewer as an individual’s subjective impressions.”

This is something I’ve noticed before, and grappled with in my mind. What is the extent to which film can portray how the world looks to an individual’s eyes? It’s easy to do with things like altered states of mind, or any other context in which there are blatant visual distortions. But there are more subtle things that can be done with text. Diction is artfully used to give a sense of the narrator – you can only see that world through the language of the person whose eyes you are looking through.

In film, you are there, seeing it with them; in a sense, it’s cutting out the middle man. Is there always going to be a bit more distance between an audience and an on-screen character as opposed to reader and book-character, due to these differences.

Perhaps film is, by nature, omniscient. As MacFarlane says on page 17, “The camera… becomes the narrator by, for instance, focusing on such aspects of miss-en-scene as the way actors look, move, gesture, or are costumed… in these ways the camera may catch a ‘truth’ which comments on and qualifies what the characters actually say.” No matter how much you distort something visually, you, generally speaking, can’t make the audience think the same way as the character.

Before that, he says that things which “enable use, through the writer’s tone, to evaluate a character’s speech, seem less immediately amenable to the camera’s eyes.” That tone could be seen as that “middle man,” our only way of understanding a world. In a book, the world is conveyed to us, but in a movie, the world is simply shown to us.

Of course, there are movies that, through more mental manipulation, can affect how audiences think. It just comes down to have fundamental core differences from literature.

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3 Responses to Cinema = Reliable Narrator?

  1. trevor11 says:

    I thought that you brought up an important part of McFarlanes article when he says that the camera can catch certain “truths.” I think thats a very important thing to keep in mind when watch a film, especially in adaptation. The truths that we see or get from reading a piece of literature are often times things that cannot be directly translated into film, however film adaptations of literature can reveal different truths that we might not see otherwise. I agree that there are things that literature can do in a subtle way to have the reader experience them but I think that film is another vessel for experience though rather than just something that conveys a view of the world to us.

    • Yes, I also liked the “truths” quotation Faye mentioned–seems to be exactly what Eisenstein, Barthes, Bazin, Woolf, etc were talking about when they prized the “accidents” that got recorded on film–and seemed in some cases to be more beautiful than the foreground that was intentionally placed there. Maybe that’s like a “first person” point of view?–but it’s a unique first person for every audience member.

  2. Marie Mosot says:

    I’m not sure if cinema, meaning film as a medium and a visual narrative, is inherently omniscient. In general practice, it does seem to take on an omniscient perspective by showing actions not limited to one character and grounded in a sense of verisimilitude, but as Chatman noted, the camera must be placed in a specific position when filming, so a camera is not omniscient insofar as it is impossible to show all the action in a given scene (e.g., close-ups and medium shots usually break down a scene; overhead and long shots would be the exception, I guess). Furthermore, to answer your question about film’s lack of “ability to have a first person point of view,” which I take to mean subjectivity – I don’t think it’s entirely impossible to have a subjective cinema. Perhaps we’re conflating the notion of an objective camera with an objective cinema. But even then, certain camera movements and editing techniques can be used to mark a subjective perspective.

    In Chicago, in the middle of “All That Jazz,” the camera cuts back forth between Roxie watching and Velma performing, and the montage ends with Roxie in Velma’s place on stage (2:04 – 2:15 in The filmmakers openly acknowledged this as a way to explain the musical numbers: they’re a figment of Roxie’s imagination (indeed, with the exception of “Mr. Cellophane,” Roxie is present in most of the musical numbers, even if she’s not singing or dancing).

    Secret Window pulled a similar trick: the film opens with the camera zooming into a mirror and onto the figure of Mort on the couch (roughly the 2-minute mark in; towards the end, the camera repeats the same move – camera into the mirror – but this time, it moves through the reflection of the window and out onto Amy (I can’t find it on YouTube) whom we then follow into the house. The repetition of the movement into and out of the mirror undoes the action; that is, everything between those two camera movements, or most of the movie, was a reflection of Mort’s subjective perspective (right before the movement out of the mirror, when Mort throws something at the wall and the wall cracks, it’s meant to be a visual rendering of his literal falling apart – he’s cracked!). When we entered the mirror, we stepped out of “reality” and into Mort’s world, a mirror world of reflections and distortions. As we exit the mirror and follow Amy into the house, we find a mess that could conceivably have been there all the time but hidden from us because Mort didn’t see a mess.

    In Taxi Driver (I keep bringing this movie up only because I spent the greater half of this year researching and writing about it, so I feel I can speak about it with some authority), I’m always tickled by this one small piece of camera movement in the scene where Travis meets the other cabbies: as he sits, the camera tilts down (around 0:18 to 0:20 in It’s such an inconsequential move but one that always had me wondering, “What’s the point? Why move the camera at all?” In an interview, Scorsese revealed that when storyboarding the film, he wanted to keep Travis in frame as much as possible (essentially maintain POV shots) to show that what the audience sees is Travis’s perspective. The camera tilts down and sits because Travis tilts down and sits – what we see is what Travis sees. The camera, in this case, is subjective (albeit perhaps to a certain extent).

    But perhaps I missed the mark. I do think it’s difficult to sustain subjectivity for the whole length of the film because we’re so grounded in a sense of verisimilitude, of real time and real space accessible to the audience and therefore not subjective, and of the camera as objective. Still, seeing in the literal sense of the camera and the metaphorical sense of perspective is always subjective. What we see in a film has been carefully crafted, selected, and edited, and even what we see in a single shot or frame does not contain but still assumes the off-camera space. I can see this is headed in a black hole of thought, so I’ll stop :)

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