Shandy’s Spectacle

How does Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story enforce Metz’s notion of spectacle in film?  Metz, as referenced in Brannigan’s chapter on narrative and narration, discusses how cross-cutting in film creates a ‘phantasy of “all-seeingness”‘ (64) which tricks the audience into believing they have assumed an omniscient point of view.  That is, interspersing shots from various locations, or of various characters, or concerning various motives gives the audience the sense of knowing everything when in reality they are being provided only with the shots, characters, motives, etc. selected and placed by the maker(s) of the film.

Tristram Shandy opens  with the lead actors being themselves–or rather not being characters from the novel Tristram Shandy–trading quips, while preparing to film a scene from the novel.  The opening scene ends with the pair discussing in what order should their names be listed as actors.  The film then cuts to what looks like a scene from the novel where a character makes a rather lengthy walk from a mansion towards the camera (zooming himself in, essentially).  The walk gives the filmmakers enough time to roll the opening credits which immediately displays to the audience: “Cast (in order of appearance)” which while not an odd way of listing the cast, considering the prior conversation seems like a direct response to the actors’ kvetching.

So, from the way the movie is cut, the audience has the sense of watching a film within a documentary–their omniscience allows them to chuckle at the joke within the credits.  When the actor finally arrives, framed in a medium shot, his wig is in hand, the theme music stops, and he anachronistically quotes Groucho Marx.  The spectacle of omniscience leads the audience to believe that they’re watching Steve Coogan and thus the documentary rather than the film.  He walks off for a short bit, the music resumes, he turns to face the camera once again and nonchalantly (but shockingly to the audience) introduces himself as Tristram Shandy who then goes on to discuss his father’s cows, the bull, and the various cocks.  The audience’s omniscience is tampered with; it is, as Metz points out, nothing more than fantasy.

I suppose one of Brannigan’s points in quoting Metz when discussing disparity of knowledge is to show how filmmakers exploit this spectacle to create asymmetries in knowledge.  I wonder if in Tristram Shandy this very early attempt at throwing off the audience’s sense of omniscience is a means of introducing a disparity of knowledge in two genres where the necessary asymmetry is either lacking or weak: documentary where the audience expects to see the truth, and an adaptation where (if having read the source material) the audience should know what will happen.

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3 Responses to Shandy’s Spectacle

  1. Darwin Eng says:

    I think it is interesting that you bring up the disparity of knowledge in A Cock and Bull Story. Assuming that you have read the original story, the reader would have the knowledge to understand the outcome of the story. Yet, it is still entirely possible that the reader/viewer is still kept in the unknown because this movie IS an adaptation and therefore, will contain differences. You bring up the two distinct genres of adaptation and documentary. If in an adaption there is knowledge, does that mean that a documentary, the viewer has no knowledge? And there seems to be a connection between the act of knowing and the act of seeking the truth (you mention that a documentary is suppose to show the truth). I am not sure what the connection is, but it is there.

    • Raj says:

      “If in an adaption there is knowledge, does that mean that a documentary, the viewer has no knowledge?”

      Hmm…that’s interesting, I didn’t think of it in that way. I suppose the amount of knowledge a viewer has on the subject of a documentary isn’t necessarily in the purview of the documentarian. Then again there are documentaries that seek to challenge pre-existing knowledge of a subject. Either way it seems to be in the best interest of the documentarian to limit disparities of knowledge, so that the truth they wish to display is highlighted as clearly as possible.

  2. Maybe an additional question would be: how quickly can viewers adjust their expectations of the kinds of disparities of knowledge different genres employ? That is, we might expect a greater disparity in fiction film than in documentary, so to be asked to switch back and forth between those expectations is a challenge for viewers.

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