Is the spectator the narrator of the film?

At the end of Branigan’s Chapter 3, “Narration,” he mentions that some theorists have conveyed “that the spectator is the narrator” of films (85). The fact that he calls this a “rather startling belief” (85) seems to hint that he feels that this does not account for those other sources of narration in films, e.g. the camera, film projector, characters, editors, directors,  anonymous voice-overs, musical soundtrack, paratexts, etc. These of course all provide viewers with crucial elements of the story, without which the story could not materialize, but are they narrators? Branigan’s comments in the section, “Forgetting and Remembering,” are striking with regard to this question. He writes:

“As a spectator engages the procedures which yield a story world, something extraordinary occurs: his or her memory of the actual images, words, and sound is erased by the acts of comprehension that they require. Comprehension proceeds by cancelling and discarding data actually present, by revising and remaking what is given. A new representation is created which is not a copy of the original stimuli nor an imperfect memory of it. In comprehending a narrative, the spectator routinely sees what is not present and overlooks what is present” (83).

Does this mean that I have simply misinterpreted the tone of his initial comment, and that he does consider the spectator to be the narrator after all?

Reflecting on Branigan’s Nick Fury example, I understand that, when taken panel by panel, 1-12 produce mystery and 13-16 create suspense (81). However, if you take them all in their entirety, disregarding the remainder of the story which he simply relates, doesn’t the spectator conclude in having an overall feeling of surprise? Even if one was not surprised, doesn’t the spectator take all of the frames, consciously or unconsciously, synthesizing them to some personal end? Does this ultimately make the spectator the narrator and all other potential “narrators” simply sources of narration? Such a view would enable us to understand why different people viewing the same film come to entirely different conclusions about it: no spectator brings exactly the same raw material to a viewing experience. What do you think? Is the narrator to be found within the film, in the filmmaking process, or outside the film, i.e. within ourselves?

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2 Responses to Narrators

  1. Mike Salerno says:

    You bring up some very interesting questions, Sara. The whole idea of the spectator acting as narrator reminds me of some reader-response theory material I read thousands of years ago. And, in fact, it reminds me even more of the idea of authorial intent (the screenwriter’s, actor’s, director’s, cinematographer’s, etc. choices in conveying the narrative of the film) vs. reader response (the spectator’s ultimate interpretation). Which is the accurate interpretation? I agree that varying opinions on a film, from people’s emotional reactions to their thoughts on its relevance or importance, add value to the argument that the spectator is the narrator.

    Branigan states on p.76 that “narration is the overall regulation and distribution of knowledge which determines how and when the spectator acquires knowledge, that is, how the spectator is able to know what he or she comes to know in a narrative.” Film techniques and all the choices made by the actors and crew on a film ultimately become, as you call them, ‘sources’ of narration. The spectator’s perception of a film is aided by these sources of narration. In the end, what a spectator does with this knowledge helps them create their own interpretation and shapes the narrative they individually experienced.

  2. Raj says:

    I like the sense of intertextuality that Branigan was hinting at- the interplay between various narrations. Those from within the text and those from the audience. Towards the end of the chapter when discussing transparency he references the four films theory:

    “[W]hen we watch a narrative film we are actually watching four films: a celluloid strip of material; a projected image with recorded sound; a coherent event in three-dimensional space; and finally a story we remember (i.e., the film we think we have seen).” (84)

    I think part of his subsequent argument involves the latter film interacting with the prior three. Specifically the prior three are what is expressed by the filmmaker- the narrative and technical elements used to narrate the story. The latter is a result of the viewer’s interaction with that. So the viewer’s knowledge comes into play (e.g. in the case of an adaptation, whether or not the viewer read the original text) as well as the interpretive community to which the viewer belongs (e.g. a student watching a film for a class may produce a different narrative than a critic watching for something on which to base an article.) The interplay between all of these layers determine not only how knowledge is distributed to the viewer, but how the viewer disseminates said knowledge. This notion seems to reinforce the idea that the audience’s role is never (or perhaps should never) be passive.

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