What Films Can Do That Novels Can’t (Sorry, Chatman)

Last week, my in-class presentation was a response to “What Novels Can Do That Films Can’t (And Vice Versa),” by Seymour Chatman. I expressed my frustration over Chatman’s implied favoritism of novels, quoting his text in the various areas where he focuses on the advantages of written narratives (literature) over visual narratives (film).  When reading Edward Branigan’s “Narrative Comprehension and Film,” I could not help but feel that he successfully countered Chatman’s argument by highlighting the different ways that camera angles work to enhance narratives – a feature that written narratives cannot fully imitate.  Though slightly confused by some of the explanations of filming techniques, I think we are all able to take away one solid definition and exploration of that definition: “Narration is the overall regulation and distribution of knowledge which determines how and when the spectator acquires knowledge” (76).

 

Branigan poses an example for consideration, Nick Fury. The question I asked myself is what are some other clear examples of how camera angles control and enhance narration?  More specifically, are there examples of film that benefit from serious camera control that demonstrate benefits that cannot be utilized in written narratives?

 

One example that comes to mind is the film Vantage Point.  If you are not familiar with this narrative, it’s basically a re-telling of the same day (when the president is shot) through the eyes of several different characters.  It is not until the audience sees the day through the eyes of the last character that they fully understand what truly happened on that day.  This is suspenseful and intriguing, keeping audience members at full attention.  They are at the mercy of the constantly changing camera angle, trying to search for clues and details that would be glossed over in any other narrative.  This technique empowers the film, granting it better reception by having something different to hook the audience with.

 

When trying to think of a written narrative that mimics the limited filming of different camera angles, the ever so cheerful As I Lay Dying comes to mind.  I remember being tortured with this novel in high school, listening to the teacher stress how Faulkner’s a genius for telling the story through chapters experienced by different characters.  This is the closest style of written narrative that I could think of when considering Branigan’s intense explanation of camera angles.  Similar to the filmed narrative, this type of written narrative has a strong control of what the reader finds out by seeing through the eyes of only the character telling the current chapter. The difference here is what the film can do but the novel cannot (sorry, Chatman).  Here, the novel cannot capture the intense interest of the audience members in the same way that the quick moving camera successfully grabs all movie-goers.

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3 Responses to What Films Can Do That Novels Can’t (Sorry, Chatman)

  1. I like the point you’re making here, Lisa, and it actually reminded me of something. When I was in late elementary/junior high school, I was really into this book series called Everworld. In the series, each book was told by a different narrator, one of five characters the story focused on. Each of them had different information about the other characters, themselves, the plot, etc. But I didn’t like all books in the series equally, of course. Some of them were more interesting than others, sure, and some had storylines that were sad and I didn’t enjoy rereading those knowing that a character I liked would die or something along those lines. But really, I enjoyed some of the narrators more than others. My favorite was the only (human) (they were fantasy fiction!) girl in the group named April, and the fact that I remember her name and no one else’s should be a good indication of my devotion to her novels. In other words, I think you’re correct. There is something about the way a film can be shot from different “perspectives” and yet maintain a fluid way of expression that is difficult to do in writing. Chatman would be highly disappointed.

  2. While watching Goodfellas for the umpteenth time last night (my best friend had never seen it, a travesty that needed rectifying), I had a similar line of thought as this blog post. I kept thinking about all the things Scorcese was doing to evoke certain feelings – things that could only be done through film.

    To answer your question: “More specifically, are there examples of film that benefit from serious camera control that demonstrate benefits that cannot be utilized in written narratives?” The Copacabana scene is a perfect example of this. In this scene, Henry Hill, a gangster who at 21 has more money and power than most can dream of, takes his future wife, Karen, to the Copacabana nightclub. Bypassing the long line out front, they enter through a side door. The camera follows them through an uninterrupted 164 second shot as we see them going through these private, side corridors, crossing through the kitchen, everyone in sight saying hello to Henry, and eventually emerging into the nightclub, where they are immediately seated in the front. Ebert calls it “an inspired way to show how the whole world seems to unfold effortlessly before young Henry Hill.”

    I couldn’t help but wonder how this would be portrayed in a book. Sure you could describe it, but you can’t making the reader imagine they are behind the two, watching and joining them, a part of this secret world of unfathomable clout. The uninterrupted shot is something that stands out, distinct from the rest of the movie’s camera work.

    Chatman says, “Narration is the overall regulation and distribution of knowledge which determines how and when the spectator acquires knowledge.” Just like prose style stands outside narrative, camera work does as well. It’s not just about what it’s telling us, but how it’s showing it. In this case, Scorcese quite literally guiding us through Henry Hill’s world visually.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4aQ4Vj1OtjQ in case anyone is interested.

    Also, since it seems to be a recurring meme in this class, I just want to mention that Goodfellas has fantastic use of voice over.

  3. Dana Choit says:

    I have never seen the film Vantage Point, but it seems to be a really powerful example of both what you mentioned that is done in literature in utilizing character perspectives to build a story, and in utilizing the camera to its fullest to do the same. From what I gather of your description of the movie, it seems that not only are individual characters’ stories told (like the changing perspectives in novels) but the audience is also drawn to visually search within each story like detectives in order to find clues as to how the shooting occurred.

    This kind of reminded me of the board game Clue, that was also adapted to a film. It seems to both tell a story, and invite the audience to also try and figure out “who dun it” using characterization and the camera , in the end revealing three possible scenarios.
    – P.s. interesting to think about a film adapted from a board game!

    Here’s the trailer for Clue if you anyway wants to check it out:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NHEpuz_gUGM

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