The Paradox of Suspense X – Early Steps of a Solution

In the previous sections I provided my characterisation of suspense. I held that uncertainty is integral to suspense. Whether in regard to a particular scene or a complete narrative uncertainty concerning how it will be resolved is essential to experiencing suspense. However, because I hold that suspense requires uncertainly I am threatened by the paradox of suspense. As I noted here, the paradox of suspense can be stated like this:

1. Suspense requires uncertainty.

2. Knowledge of the outcome of a narrative, scene or situation precludes any   uncertainty

3. We feel suspense in response to fictions we know the outcome of

All of the individual elements are acceptable in isolation however; in conjunction they pose a problem for my account of suspense (because it holds that suspense requires uncertainty).  To escape the paradox of suspense I will illustrate that knowledge of the outcome of a narrative, scene or situation does not necessarily preclude uncertainty. I will argue that the function and processes of our attention is responsible for this ability to become, momentarily, uncertain about a particular scene even if we have certain knowledge concerning how that scene turns out.

            We are able to experience uncertainty in response to scenes, situations and narratives we know the outcome to because we do not (automatically) use prior knowledge (stored in our long term memory) when processing the information provided by a particular narrative. That is, when we are reading a suspense thriller we are not obliged to recall our knowledge of how a scene turns out. To establish whether we are obliged or not to recall specific information Richard J Gerrig conducted several experiments. These experiments attempted to gauge whether we do use prior information about former president George Washington when reading a short narrative about his life. In order to judge whether we are or are not obliged to access specific information about George Washington Gerrig introduced an obstacle to our comprehension of the well-known story of his acceptance of the role of first president of the USA. Gerrig explains:

In our experiments, we created small emendations to nonfictional aspects of American history and culture. We began with assertions that were selected to be unproblematic, such as George Washington was elected first president of the United States. We then wrote stories that presented obstacles to these well-known outcomes.[1]

The obstacle in the first experiment was changing the narrative to conclude that George Washington had rejected the presidency because he was too frail and that John Adams has become the first president. If we are obliged to utilize prior knowledge we have about George Washington then there should be no difference between the time needed to respond to questions by readers given the truthful story and those with the altered ending. The results of Gerrig’s experiments were staggering.[2] In some cases the altered stories produced an increase of nearly 50% in processing time required to answer the question correctly. Gerrig explains:

The results of this experiment indicate that uncertainty can be induced by immersing readers in story episodes. Verification latencies suggested that the subjects entertained the implied conclusions of the [narratives], even when they had information available in memory that directly contradicted these conclusions.[3]

Gerrig concluded that this evidence shows that there is ‘a limit on the way that prior knowledge is put to use in moment-by-moment understanding’.[4] That is, Gerrig’s experiment illustrates that we can be momentarily uncertain about outcomes or situations we have prior knowledge of because we do not automatically utilise prior knowledge of a scene (or situation or narrative) when processing the information provided by that scene. Gerrig’s experiments affirm then that it is quite possible to be uncertain about a scene, scenario or narrative even if we know how that particular scene, scenario or narrative turns out. What remains to be explained is why and how this natural ability comes about and how exactly it can explain features of our experience of repeat suspense. I will show that it is our attention which is responsible for our ability to become, momentarily, uncertain about a particular scene even if we have certain knowledge concerning how that scene turns out. That is, it is a feature of the way our attention works that we are able to (and do so frequently) prioritize processing new, important or vivid information over recalling previous encounters from the long-term memory. So, when we re-watch Die Hard we are not obliged to recall how particular scenes turn out with the consequence that we can experience uncertainty and ultimately suspense.

McClain hanging from tower

[1] Richard J Gerrig, ‘Suspense in the absence of Uncertainty’, Journal of Memory and Language, Vol. 28, No. 6, (December 1989), p. 633-648, p. 634.

[2] For brevity I will not copy the numbers created by Gerrig’s experiment though it is important to note that the difference in latency between true stories without obstacles (2.33 seconds) to stories that were false with obstacles (3.12 seconds) is a massive difference in response to a story with very little counter-factual information to process.

[3] Gerrig, ‘Suspense in the Absence of Uncertainty’, p. 639.

[4] Ibid, p. 645.

The Paradox of Suspense VI – Criticisms of Carroll’s Account

In the previous section I explored Carroll’s account of suspense and solution to the paradox of suspense. I explained that Carroll held that we experience suspense by (a) entertaining uncertainty (b) regarding an unfolding event  (c) which has two logically opposed possible outcomes (one moral the other immoral) of which (d) the moral outcome appears improbable and the immoral outcome appears probable. In this section I will start by evaluating and analysing his account of suspense. I will then consider whether his solution to the paradox of suspense is successful. I will conclude that neither his account of suspense or solution to the paradox of suspense are acceptable and should therefore be rejected.

The first criticism of Carroll’s account concerns whether we are able to experience suspense in response to immoral characters and situations. Carroll argued that fictions engender suspense by creating a situation where only two logically opposed outcomes, one moral and the immoral, appear possible. However, many fictions include immoral, or at least morally dubious, characters and situations of which we support, sympathise and root for and whose actions do not appear to offer a simple dialectic between moral and immoral action. One vivid example of this is Goodfellas (Dir., Martin Scorsese, 1990). Goodfellas is primarily about the protagonist Henry Hill’s career as a gangster in the Italian Mafia. Throughout the film we witness Henry’s rise from street-kid to violent gangster. Rather than see his acts (beatings, robberies and hold-ups) as horrific we identify with him, his glamorous lifestyle and his desire to become a “made man”. In one scene Henry comes home to find his wife distressed. This is because her neighbour has made a pass at her and when Henry’s wife refused the neighbour’s advances he hit her. When Henry comes home we are unsure how he is going to react (will he hit/kill his neighbour or his wife or both!) and we experience some suspense in response to this scene. When, in front of his wife, Henry pistol whips the neighbour we are relieved and enjoy the rough treatment the neighbour receives. In regard to this scene it appears that there is no choice between two logically opposed outcomes. That is, the suspense we experience in response to this scene springs from two possible options both which appear to range from the immoral (hitting the neighbour) to the extremely immoral (dispatching his wife and the neighbour).

Another similar issue for Carroll regarding his notion of two logically opposed moral outcomes is that he holds that we pull for the moral outcome over the immoral outcome. However, this doesn’t appear to be correct. An instance of this can be found in The Godfather (Dir., Francis Ford Coppola, 1972). In one scene the central protagonist Michael attends a meeting with two rival gangsters who have previously attempted to kill his father. On the surface Michael’s reason for attending the meeting is to discuss a truce but he actually intends to kill both gangsters. The two rival gangsters set up the meeting in a neutral restaurant and frisk Michael as he enters to ensure he hasn’t brought a weapon. Because of this Michael has an accomplice hide a pistol in the bathroom before he arrives. Later in the scene when Michael leaves the bathroom with the pistol he stands in front of the two gangsters and hesitates. This moment is immensely suspenseful and we are led to wonder whether Michael will kill the two gangsters. Once Michael kills both of the gangsters we stop feeling any suspense and are relieved that they both get their just deserves. In regard to this scene then, we pull for the immoral outcome (murder) over the moral outcome (the truce or reporting them to the police). That is, we experience suspense because we are unsure whether Michael will go through with the immoral act (the murder of which we want him to do).

In the next section I will include some possible replies to these criticisms and add some further issues with Carroll’s account.

The Paradox of Suspense IV – Noel Carroll’s Account of Suspense

In the previous sections I explained the paradox of suspense as well as several features any satisfactory account of suspense must be able to explain. In this section I will explore Carroll’s proposed account. Carroll starts by explaining that his account concentrates exclusively on suspense as ‘an emotional response to narrative fictions’.[1] Even though Carroll makes this move he asserts that “real-life” suspense is produced by uncertainty regarding future events we have a stake in.[2]  Carroll starts his account of suspense by claiming that suspense is a “prospect emotion”. By this Carroll means that suspense is an emotional reaction to unfolding action. Carroll explains ‘suspense takes as its object the moments leading up to the outcome about which we are uncertain… Once the outcome is fixed, however, the state is no longer suspense’.[3] A vivid example of this can be found in a scene in L’Avventura in which Sandro catches up with the woman he believes to be his missing (and presumed dead) girlfriend Anna and realizes it is just a similar looking stranger. When this scene or situation’s outcome is fixed we stop feeling suspense and start to experience a sense of frustration and disappointment. To Carroll then, we only experience suspense in response to an outcome we are uncertain over. Once we are certain of a scene or situation’s outcome suspense is replaced with other emotional responses (such as joy, relief or disappointment). However, suspense is not the only response we have when we are uncertain about how a narrative will unfold. Detective fiction is one such genre in which we experience uncertainty regarding how a particular narrative will unfold.

Carroll attempts to differentiate the uncertainty that engenders suspense from the uncertainty we experience in “mystery” fiction by highlighting a possible temporal difference between mystery and suspense. Carroll explains ‘in mysteries in the classical detection mode, we are characteristically uncertain about what has happened in the past, whereas with suspense fictions we are uncertain about what will happen’.[4] However, though it is true that our experience of mystery narratives is tied-up with uncertainty about important past plot details, there does seem to be instances of uncertainty over future or unfolding plot developments in mystery narratives. An example of this could be when, in Murder, She Wrote, Jessica Fletcher gathers the prime suspects together with the intention of revealing the who, why and how of the murder. We do not normally experience suspense in response to this scene even though we are uncertain about how the scene will unfold. That is, even though we are uncertain about the unfolding action, we experience something like curiosity, puzzlement and eager anticipation rather than suspense. So, it appears that Carroll is wrong that the difference between suspense and mystery narratives lies with its temporal nature. Carroll highlights another potential difference between suspense and mystery narratives. Carroll explains:

A mystery of the classical whodunit variety prompts us to ask a question about whose answer we are uncertain and about which we entertain as many possible answers as there are suspects. But suspense is different. With suspense, the question we are prompted to ask does not have an indefinite number of possible answers, but only two. Will the heroine be sawed in half or not?.[5]

To Carroll, whereas suspense has two possible outcomes (the heroine is killed or not) mystery narratives are characterised as having almost infinite possible outcomes. That is, the cause of uncertainty which engenders suspense differs from the cause of uncertainty which mystery narratives produce. To Carroll, suspense is created by having only two logically opposed outcomes (life/death capture/escape). In contrast to this limitation of possibility, the uncertainty engendered by the mystery narrative is brought about by the possibility of there being as many possible answers as there are suspects. Therefore, Carroll holds that suspense is created by a state of uncertainty over the outcome of an unfolding event which has two logically opposed outcomes.

In the next section I will continue to examine Noel Carroll’s account of suspense and solution to the paradox of suspense.

[1] Noel Carroll, ‘The Paradox of Suspense’, in Peter Vorderer, Hans J. Wulff and Mike Friedrichsen (eds), Suspense: Conceptualizations, Theoretical Analyses, and Empirical Explorations, (London: Routledge, 1996),  pp. 71-91, p. 74.

[2] Ibid, p. 76.

[3] Ibid, p. 74.

[4] Ibid, p. 75.

[5] Ibid, p. 75.

The Paradox of Suspense III – The Problem Cont.

As well as providing a convincing reply to the paradox of suspense, any account of suspense must be able to coherently explain several other common features of our common experience of suspense. The first feature is called “diminishing returns”. Diminishing returns refers to the progressive decrease in the vividness or strength of our experience of suspense (or any emotional reaction to fiction). On repeat viewings or readings of narrative fiction we often experience less vivid emotional responses. On our first viewing of the romantic comedy Sleepless in Seattle (Dir., Nora Ephron, 1993) we may experience a strong emotional reaction to the plight of  Annie Reed and her attempt to meet (and start a relationship with) the widower Sam Baldwin. However, on future viewings the emotional experience we feel may suffer from diminishing returns. That is, we experience a less vivid or powerful emotion response to the narrative of Sleepless in Seattle. Though we may still pull for Annie and Sam to finally get together, the emotional impact of the film is diminished and may diminish even further on future viewings. In regard to suspense this also appears to happen. On our first viewing of Patriot Games (Dir., Phillip Noyce, 1992) we may be gripped on the edge of our seats but on subsequent viewings we may still feel some suspense but not so intensely. Any adequate account must therefore also be able to satisfactorily explain diminishing returns of suspense.

            The final two features any satisfactory account of suspense must explain are “absent suspense” and “second-instance suspense”. Absent suspense is the simple phenomenon where we experience no suspense at all. In the haste to solve the paradox of suspense an account must not preclude the possibility that we may just fail to experience suspense even though most of the conditions of suspense are met. That is, on our second viewing of Patriot Games we may just fail to feel suspense. Second-instance suspense is the irregular cases in which we feel suspense on second viewings (or viewings after our first) but not on the first instance or encounter of suspense. On our first instance of viewing a film like L’Avventura we may feel lost, confused and perplexed. As the film differs so radically from conventional narrative fiction this reaction is normal. On our second viewing of the film we may however experience some suspense – especially in response to the scene in which Sandro believes he has just seen the missing Anna in a crowded room. Therefore, another feature any good account of suspense must explain is our ability to experience suspense on secondary viewings when we haven’t on our first.

In the next post I will explore Noel Carroll’s account of suspense.

The Paradox of Suspense II – The Problem

From out and out thrillers such as The Fugitive (Dir., Andrew Davis, 1993) and Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code to European art-house films like L’Avventura (Dir., Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960), suspense is an integral element in our experience of fiction. Suspense is so important in certain genres (thrillers) that the financial and artistic success or failure of a film or novel depends entirely on creating constant and repeated instances of suspense as well as suspense on repeated viewings (motivating repeat sales of cinema tickets and DVDs). Not only do people re-read or re-experience suspense fiction routinely, they do so with the understanding that they will experience the same, or similar, grip of suspense. Carroll claims that he feels suspense even on the fiftieth viewing of King Kong (Dir., Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1933).[1] However, this regular and common repeat consumption of suspense fiction (and fiction that creates suspense) sits at odds with common-sense and psychological notions of suspense. As Peter Vorderer notes, a large majority of theorists support the hypothesis that uncertainty regarding a scene or events outcome is essential to suspense.[2]But if suspense requires uncertaint,y why is it that Carroll testifies to still feel suspense on the fiftieth viewing of King Kong?. Obviously there will be frequent forgetting and misremembering of scenes to naturally explain a decent quantity of repeat suspense. Just how exactly John McClain, in Die Hard (Dir., John McTiernan, 1988), escapes from some terrorists after accidentally alerting them by bumping his head on a table is not something we will pay much attention to remembering. Carroll agrees noting that ‘our propensity to be recaptivated by an already encountered suspense fiction may be explained by the fact that we have forgotten how it ends. This happens often’.[3]  However, though it is conceivable that many instances of repeated suspense may be due, at least in part, to fallible memory, it cannot explain a large amount of repeated suspense. That is, it would be surprising if after the seventy-fifth viewing of King Kong there is any scene that Carroll would experience uncertainty over. So, beyond Carroll’s obsession with giant gorillas, there does seem to be frequent cases of repeated suspense not being caused by forgetting. The problem for accounts of suspense then is that familiarity with a fiction seems to preclude uncertainty yet, we still seem able to experience suspense. This issue is called the paradox of suspense. The paradox of suspense can stated like this:

1. Suspense requires uncertainty.

2. Knowledge of the outcome of a narrative, scene or situation precludes any uncertainty

3. We feel suspense in response to fictions we know the outcome of

All of the individual elements are acceptable in isolation however; in conjunction they pose a problem for the traditional account of suspense requiring uncertainty.  To escape the paradox of suspense, an account of suspense must reject one of the three elements. Carroll and Smuts both deny that (1) suspense requires uncertainty. I offer an alternative solution by denying that (2) knowledge of a narrative, scene or situation precludes any uncertainty (Richard J. Gerrig also produces this type of account). Another solution is to deny that (3) we can feel suspense on repeated viewings (Robert J. Yanal).

[1]Noel Carroll, ‘The Paradox of Suspense’, in Peter Vorderer, Hans J. Wulff and Mike Friedrichsen (eds), Suspense: Conceptualizations, Theoretical Analyses, and Empirical Explorations, (London: Routledge, 1996),  pp. 71-91, p. 71.

[2] Peter Vorderer, ‘Toward a Psychological Theory of Suspense’, in Peter Vorderer, Hans J. Wulff and Mike Friedrichsen (eds), Suspense: Conceptualizations, Theoretical Analyses, and Empirical Explorations, (London: Routledge, 1996), pp. 233-254, p. 234.

[3]Carroll, ‘The Paradox of Suspense’, p. 73.

A Couple of Squared Circles, Sarris and Kael – Part II

Part Two: ‘Circles and Squares’ – Pauline Kael


Pauline Kael’s acerbic reply to Andrew Sarris’s ‘Notes on The Auteur Theory in 1962’ starts by examining the basic method or concept of the proposed auteur theory. Kael explains:

Sarris has noticed that in High Sierra (not a very good movie) Raoul Walsh repeated an uninteresting and obvious device that he had earlier used in a worse movie. And for some inexplicable reason, Sarris concludes that he would not have had this joy of discovery without the auteur theory.(1.)

Kael is asserting that the auteur theory venerates directors who repeat uninteresting and obvious devices. The supposed “joy” of the auteur theory, to Kael, is the celebration of a director’s usage in a bad film of a technique used in another earlier worse film. Kael also takes exception at the tone that Sarris uses in relation to the importance of the auteur theory in examining a director’s work as an organic whole. Kael asserts:

In every art form, critics traditionally notice and point out the way the artists borrow from themselves (as well as from others) and how the same device, techniques, and themes reappear in their work. This is obvious in listening to music, seeing plays, reading novels, watching actors; we take it for granted that this is how we perceive the development or the decline of an artist.(2.)

As Kael notes artists have always re-used older material. Leonardo di Vinci reused several sketches in many of his paintings and reputedly used a sketch of a young man as a template for the face of the ‘Mona Lisa’ – even though the Mona Lisa was based on a woman. What Kael seems to be asking is whether this is really a good criterion for the critique of film. Although noting the continued development of increasing technical ability, or competence in Sarris’s words, over an artist’s lifetime is important it is not often the only criterion of judgement. To Kael, a better area of critique, and the ultimate function of a critic, is ‘perceiving what is original and important in new work and helping others to see’.(3.) To Kael, Sarris concentrates on what is established, unoriginal in a work and ignores new ideas, one-offs and innovations. Kael asserts that the auteur critic only identifies how a film relates to a director’s past canon or filmography and ignores the new elements: what is “important” and makes something a new or original film.

Kael proceeds by exploring the three premises or criterion of judgement that Sarris sets out. Sarris’s three premises are:  

  1. The technical competence of a director as a criterion of value.(4.)
  2. The distinguishable personality of the director as a criterion of value.(5.)
  3. Interior meaning… the tension between a director’s personality and his material.(6.)

To Kael the “outer circle”, or first premise , of a director’s basic technical competence, is either a weak premise, a commonplace attitude of artistic judgement – and therefore the auteur theory is not as radical or as “fresh” as it seemed to be as a critique of film in 1962 – or a complete misunderstanding of the necessarily talents required for the production of art. Kael notes ‘sometimes the greatest artists in a medium bypass or violate the simple technical competence that is so necessary for hacks’.(7.) Kael explains further that ‘the greatness of a director like [Jean] Cocteau has nothing to do with mere technical competence: his greatness is in being able to achieve his own personal expression and style’.(8.) Kael seems to arguing that although technical competence is important to a director its use as a criterion of judgement “misses the point” in the evaluation of director’s ability to make art. Cocteau once remarked that the only technique, in any art, one needs is the technique you invent for yourself and in relation to this Kael argues that ‘if [a director] can make great films without knowing the standard methods, without the usual craftsmanship of the “good director”, then that is the way [the director] works’.(9.)

The second criterion, and according to Kael the actual premise of the auteur theory, relates to the director’s distinguishable personality. Kael, in characteristically sardonic and bitchy style, explains that:

Traditionally, in any art, the personalities of all those involved in a production have been a factor in judgement, but that the distinguishability of personality should in itself be a criterion of value completely confuses normal judgement. The smell of a skunk is more distinguishable than the perfume of a rose; does that make it better?. (10.)

In essence Kael is arguing that the distinguishable personality of a director is a poor choice for criterion of judgement. One may be able to more distinctly distinguish the gaudy, accidental, clumsy hand of a second-rate director than the light, delicate hand of a first-rate director but it does not, or should not, indicate the better director between the two. Kael goes on to add:

When a famous director makes a good movie, we look at the movie, we don’t think about the director’s personality; when he makes a stinker we notice his familiar touches because there’s not mush else to watch. (11.)

Kael is asserting that the touch of a director – the evident touch – is an indicator of a poor film or at least a symptom of boredom and apathy towards the film’s narrative. If we can distinguish the director’s personality then it is not really a ‘part of the texture of the film’ and therefore it overrides and dominates the film itself.(12.) Kael also criticises Sarris’s second criterion of judgement, and the auteur position in general, by arguing that ‘it is an insult to an artist to praise his bad work along with his good; it indicates you are incapable of judging either’. Kael asserts that this form of analysis and criticism is similar to attitudes to fashion labels ‘this is Dior, so it’s good’.(13.) Kael position is that the auteur theory cannot, once a director is given the title of auteur, discriminate between the director’s good and bad work – especially if the director fulfils the criterion or premises of the auteur theory.

The third premise, or inner circle, is, according to Kael, ‘the opposite of what we have always taken for granted in the arts, that the artist expresses himself in the unity of form and content’.(14.) To Kael the auteur theory glorifies “trash”, ‘the frustrations of a man working against the given material’.(15.) The conflict of a director’s style with the content is what produces great art to the auteur, or at least to Sarris, but to Kael is it a weakness of a film. According to Kael if a director does not unify his style, the form, with the content of the script, then the director does not produce good art. Kael explains:

Their ideal auteur is the man who signs a long-term contract, directs any script that’s handed to him, and expresses himself by shoving bits of style up the crevasses of the plots. If his “style” is in conflict with the story line or subject matter, so much the better.(16.)

The consequence of admiring the directors who shove style up a script’s crevasse is that ‘the director who fights to do something he cares about is a square’.(17.) This statement is related to Sarris’s criticism of Ingmar Bergman’s later work which Sarris felt had declined due to the absence of any progression of ‘technique’ which directly related to Bergman’s ‘sensibility’.(18.) Kael responds harshly – rather too angrily for a really rational debate – but does pose an interesting question wondering whether ‘writer-directors are disqualified by [the] third premise?’.(19.) Kael sums up her criticism by wondering why the auteur theory prefers certain commerical films – a saving grace of the auteur theory some will say. Kael expands on this point by asserting that ‘those travelling in auteur circles believe that making [a] purse out of a sow’s ear is an infinitely greater accomplishment than making a solid carrying case out of a good piece of leather’.(20.) Kael’s harsh criticism of the auteur theory continues into the very last vitirolic paragraph when she argues:

These [auteur] critics work embarrassingly hard trying to give some semblance of intellectual respectability to a preoccupation with mindless, repetitious commercial products… They’re not critics: they’re inside dopesters.(21.)

The auteur critic, according to Kael, prefers products made out of inferior products: mindlessly repetitious commercial films. Kael’s article is an angry, sardonic, reply to Sarris’s auteur theory – she even questions whether an auteur critic is a critic at all –  she has highlighted some problems and flaws in his conception of the primary criterion of judgement an auteur critic makes. In my next article (part III) I will conclude by examining both Sarris and Kael’s position. I will indicate where I feel both critics have got things right and got things wrong.

1. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, in Gerald Mast & Marshall Cohen (ed), Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, 2nd Edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, (1979), pp. 666-679. p. 667.

2. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, pp. 667-668.

3. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 669.

 4. Andrew Sarris, ‘Notes On The Auteur Theory In 1962’, in Gerald Mast & Marshall Cohen (ed), Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, 2nd Edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, (1979), pp. 650-665, p. 662.

5. Andrew Sarris, ‘Notes On The Auteur Theory In 1962’, p. 662.

6. Andrew Sarris, ‘Notes On The Auteur Theory In 1962’, p. 663.

7. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 669.

8. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 669.

9. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 670.

10. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 671.

 11. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 671.

12. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 672.

13. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 673.

14. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 674.

15. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, pp. 674-675.

16. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 674.

17. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 674.

18. Andrew Sarris, ‘Notes On The Auteur Theory In 1962’, pp. 662-663.

19. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 676.

20. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 678.

21. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 679.

Are There Limits To What We Can Believe In Fiction? If So, What Determines These limits?

This relates to film but is really more to do with aesthetics. However i wrote it and felt it was relevant enough to post in my journal.


The imagination is a powerful tool that helps us look beyond possibilities. In the real world we are bound by possibilities and forces such as gravity.1 When we leap out of the window we fall ungracefully to the floor with terrible life-threatening consequences. Yet we freely accept that Superman is able to achieve flight and all because an author tells us that he can. Possibilities and impossibilities are open to our imagination; time travel, spaceships, travelling at speeds faster than light and talking animals are all accepted as proper items of imagination. Although the imagination is a powerful tool there seems to be a limit to what people believe in fiction: a moral limit. I will firstly explain why morality may impose a limit in our imaginative abilities. I will then explore Kendall L. Walton’s position that the limitation in imaginative abilities is due to the impossibility of imagining an opposing moral position as possible. I will then illustrate that Walton’s position is incorrect. I will then come to the conclusion that it is due to an unwillingness, rather than an impossibility, to imagine an opposing moral position as a possibility.


The imagination has a great ability to conjure up fantastical events that couldn’t otherwise ever be performed in the real world. However there does seem to be a limit to what people can imagine freely in fiction. This limit seems to be a moral consideration. Tamar Szabo Gendler explains that ‘When it comes to make-belief… I have a much easier time following an author’s invitation to imagine that the earth is flat than I do following her invitation to imagine that murder is right’.2 What we accept in the real world as a scientific impossibility we can accept as a possibility in the fictional world – we easily accept time travel in Back To The Future (1985). Yet when people are faced with a moral code they find disgusting, that paedophilia is really harmless or that infanticide is good, they resist the fictional world to the point where they stop reading the text entirely. This seems to be due to the exportability of morality. When a film asserts that pigs can fly we know that pigs cannot fly in the real world. When an author asserts that abortion is murder in a novel we know that this belief is applicable and exportable to the real world. The exportable and transferable nature of morality means that the moral position of a novel or film affects the readers ability to fully participate in imagining the fiction world. This is indicated by the inability of many viewers of Triump des Willens (1935) to admire the aesthetic qualities of Leni Riefenstahl’s film due to the moral and political position the film advocates [A further film, and maybe one more problematic, is the film Birth of a Nation (1915)]. One position holds that it is conceptually impossible to believe one moral position while accepting in a fictional world an opposed position as a possibility. This is advanced by Kendall L. Walton.


Walton believes that there is a limit to what we can believe in fiction. Walton believes that it is an impossible task to imagine a morally objectionable reality as good, such as that rape is in fact good for women, in the fictional world and still hold that rape is not good in the real world. Walton states ‘there are limits to our imaginative abilities. It is not clear that I can… imagine accepting just any moral principle I am capable of articulating’.3 Walton explains that, because of his moral beliefs, he is unable to imagine accepting a moral belief contrary to his own. Walton believes slavery to be wrong and cannot imagine accepting it as a possibility. Walton’s moral position is that slavery is morally impermissible. That position requires the belief that slavery cannot ever be morally correct. Therefore, because of his moral position, it would be contradictory to suppose or make-believe that slavery could ever, in any possible realm, be other than morally incorrect. Therefore Walton is unable to imagine slavery as morally correct because his beliefs do not allow the possibility. Walton seems to be arguing that it is impossible for us to imagine outside of our moral position. Walton’s position is called ‘the impossibility hypothesis’ by Tamar Szabo Gendler. 4 Gendler states that the hypothesis is defined by two points:


  1. The scenarios that evoke imaginative resistance are conceptually impossible.

  2. The conceptual impossibility of these scenarios renders them unimaginable.5

Walton believes that holding slavery to be morally impermissible and permissible at once is conceptually impossible and therefore unimaginable. The work has become ‘morally inaccessible’ and therefore the reader is unable to fully enter into the fictional world.6

Walton’s position, and the ‘impossibility hypothesis’, fails because it relies on morality being a fixed construct. Moral beliefs often change radically when they convert or lose their faith. If morality is changeable than imagining an opposing morality as possible and true in a fictional world is not an impossibility; it is rather an unwillingness on the part of the reader. An unwillingness that arises because one doesn’t want to change or accept an opposing moral position as superior. Gendler explains ‘my unwillingness to [imagine] is a function of my not wanting to take a particular perspective on the world – [the real, non fictional world] – which I do no endorse’.7 Essentially the reader fears that accepting a moral stance in the fictional world would mean that they accept such a position in the real world. If we accept in a text that a certain man’s relationship with a young girl was permissible fictionally, then it would lead us to believe it to be a possibility that paedophilia could be permissible in certain circumstances – such as those described in the text. Therefore we opt out of imagining a fictional world where paedophilia is permissible because we fear that we couldn’t reject it, or that we would start to accept it in the real world.


Walton argues that it is impossible to imagine an opposing moral position as a good things. He comes to this conclusion incorrectly. For a fictional world to be impossible to image the subject’s morals must not be changeable. Yet morals are changeable. This indicates that the inability to imagine an opposing morality is in fact an unwillingness on the part of the reader to imagine an other moral position being superior or acceptable. The text may purposely challenge the morals of others, yet the resistance come from the reader. The reader is unwilling to be challenged and enter into imagining a world that they cannot stomach; it isn’t that the proposed fictional world in unimaginable, it is rather that the reader doesn’t want to imagine, and engage with, the fictional world. Because morals are transferable people fear that involvement with a fictional world may include the adoption, or at least acceptance, of an alternative moral position, such as paedophilia being permissible or that slavery is an agreeable business. When we are questioned by fictions that oppose our moral outlook our counter-argument may be just as literary and hypothetical as the fictional world we are defending our position against. Therefore rather than enter into a dialogue with our own and other moral positions we opt to ignore the problems that arise and resist the fictional world. There doesn’t seem to be a limit to what we can imagine as possible in the fictional world but there is a limit to what we will allow ourselves to imagine in accord with out moral beliefs.



1I chose real because I felt it was better than non-fictional – though the term real is not without its problems.

2Tamar Szabo Gendler, ‘The Puzzle of Imaginative Resistance’ in The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 97, No. 2, (Feb, 2000) pp. 55-81 p. 58.

3Kendall L. Walton; Michael Tanner ‘Morals in Fiction and Fictional Morality’ in Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volumes, Vol. 68, (1994), pp. 27-66 p. 48.

4Walton denies that he defends/advocates the so-called ‘impossibility hypothesis’ yet the thesis fits his arguments exactly in regard to his conceptualization of the source of the resistance, I.e. that it is impossible to conceptualize a moral state opposed to one’s own.

5Tamar Szabo Gendler ‘The Puzzle of Imaginative Resistance’ p. 66.

6Kendall L Walton; Michael Tanner, ‘Morals in Fiction and Fictional Morality’, p. 30.

7Tamar Szabo Gendler ‘The Puzzle of Imaginative Resistance’ p. 74.

Narrative Structure: Free And Bound Motifs

Motifs are recurring structures that develop and communicate a film’s major themes [Motifs are the discrete images or sounds, like a coin, where as themes are more general concepts such as greed]. Motifs are therefore essential in the language of cinema. Motif’s are often used to communicate character and to indicate and remind the audience of essential and important facts. The study of narrative, and in particular film narrative formation, indicates that there are two central motif types; free and bound.


Bound motifs are those which, according to the Russian formalists, cannot be removed from the narrative without radically changing the chronological essence of a narrative. In essence a bound motif is a motif that is essential to the explaining or telling of a story. In the film Escape From New York (1981) the motif of the wristwatch is a bound motif as the movement of time is essential to the understanding of the plot. The motif of the wristwatch is essential in understanding and remembering that Snake has only twenty-two hours to find the president. As the time slips away the motif is also used to increase the tension. The narratives sequence and chronological essence is produced by the deadline of twenty-two hours; the motif of the wristwatch is bound by its essential nature in the formation of Escape From New York‘s narrative. In the film Speed (1994) the motif of the bus is a bound motif as without it the film wouldn’t make any sense; the story could not be told without it.


Free motifs are those which aren’t essential to the retelling or explaining of a narrative. This is not to say that they aren’t highly important, but the chronological make-up of a narrative wouldn’t be altered by a free motifs inclusion or exclusion. A free motif is a tool often used to communicate character and create aesthetic complexity. The use of colour to indicate a sense of past or nostalgia isn’t essential to the retelling of a story however it produces an aesthetic more inclined to communicating that lost past or beautiful regretful age a film wishes to portray. Free bound motifs tend to create deeper meaning and communicate conflicts without the need to thoroughly establish character though screen-time. A film can communicate an ordered and synchronised character by establishing a motif; John continuously looks at his timepiece. A rupture in his character and life could be communicated clearly by the breaking, dropping or stopping of his watch. And although the watch stopping has no relevance to the plot per say it could communicate the loss of order in John. This fictional man loses his structure; he becomes de-constructed through the symbolic act of his timepiece breaking. The symbolic act communicates a loss because it was previously posited as a motif that indicated his orderliness. Although not essential to the plot, the free motif of the timepiece helps communicate the more general theme of the film concerning the man’s change in character and life. In the film Juno (2007) the central character, also named Juno, buys kitsch tat such as a faulty burger phone. This motif isn’t essential to the film’s narrative however it does communicate character quickly and clearly.

Communication Of Era In Cinema (2)

This is just a short continuation of my earlier post concerning the communication of era in cinema. The actual printing technique, which produces the sepia-style affect found in films such as O’Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) and Saving Private Ryan (1998), is called Bleach Bypass.

‘Bleach Bypass printing is a process that involves leaving the silver grains in the emulsion layer rather than bleaching them out. This has the effect of desaturating the colour because it is akin to adding a layer of black-and-white to a colour negative’ In both Saving Private Ryan and O’Brother, Where Art Thou?  ‘the desaturation of the colour [by process of bleach bypass]. combined with the… brown palette of the settings… recalls the sepia tones that are used in historical photographs and thus contributes to the films’ emphasis on memory’ and the communication of a by-gone era.1

1. Maria Pramaggiore and Tom Wallis, Film A Critical Introduction, London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd, (2008), p. 173.

The Function of Chiaroscuro Lighting and Analepsis in Double Indemnity

Double Indemnity (1944)

Double Indemnity is a classic film noir. The film noir is a hard genre to define, but it is commonly said to be a collection of Aesthetical Principles and a more cynical outlook during and after WWII.1. Double Indemnity starts with non-diagetic music which installs a sense of urgency and action that mirrors a speeding car. The editing is smooth, as each cut dissolves into another, ensuring a clear understanding that time and space has moved in a linear fashion. The establishing shot of Walter Neff’s workplace stunts this fluid action, the camera then pans right, slowly following Neff into an office; which, conversely to building drama and frenetic action, constructs a sense of suspense. The editing, although linear, manipulates clock time, as the frame speed and scene change slows down as he enters the insurance building, this technique is the editing of a frames’ rhythm between shots. What this editing technique does is change the rhythm and pace of our perception, ensuring we gain a sense of drama and suspense.


In film noir lighting is an important aesthetical principle as this give clues to the characters’ function. As Neff enters the office we only see thin bars of white light, projected across his chest, as if he was in a jail. As he switches the light on, the room is flooded with white and all shadows are removed. This technique is called Chiaroscuro2, the artful use of shades in black and white photography. This technique gives the viewer clues about the nature of Neff’s actions; that he is seeking redemption, bringing himself out of the shadows metaphorically, in the form of a confession, into the light. This functions as an instantly identifiable trope which helps the viewer to understand Neff’s character and narrative function as the Male Protagonist – a key component of the film noir. The understanding of characterisation is essential in Classic Hollywood cinema; the opening scene unmistakably uses generic conventions of the film noir to construct Walter Neff, from the lighting of the set, his bare and uninspiring office, the mise-en-scene, and the continuous motif of lighting a match between his finger and thumb.


In film noir the narrative is always centred on partial redemption and rationalisation of the male protagonist’s actions. In Double Indemnity this is done through the narrative technique of analepsis, or the flashback. The narrative device of analepsis is a classic film noir device which critic Schrader tells us creates a sense of ‘an irretrievable past, a predetermined fate, and an all-enveloping hopelessness’3 this outlook is culmination of the pre-war depression and WWII. As Walter Neff starts his confession the camera focuses on his face with a medium close-up. The camera position is mimicking the relationship between police and suspect, and although he’s talking into a voice-recorder, we can assume that we are meant to be placed in that moralising position. The combination of chiaroscuro and analepsis gives Double Indemnity a dark, unsentimental vision of America and in this way Billy Wilder’s Film is a classic film noir.


1. Michael Walker ‘Film Noir: Introduction’ in Ian Cameron (Ed) The Movie Book of Film Noir. (London: Studio Vista) 1994 PP 8-38

2. Billy Wilder was earlier in his career a German Expressionist, and the expert use of Chiaroscuro is most likely due in part to this fact.

3. P, Schrader. ‘Notes on Film Noir’ in B.K, Grant. (Ed) Film Genre Reader II ( Austin: University of Texas Press) 1999 PP 119-221 P220

Subjective Realism in Sandrine Veysset’s Will it Snow for Christmas?

Will it Snow for Christmas? (1996)

The opening scene of Will it Snow for Christmas? is shot like a home movie. It begins with a handheld shot, filmed at the children’s’ eye level. The scene contains jerking movements, which replicates the rushing anarchy of children playing. Though the colours are saturated, the lighting of the scene is naturalistic. After an establishing shot, filmed from the perspective of the Father’s Truck – a fact we are not yet made aware of – we see a point of view shot from the children looking back towards the red truck. It then cuts back again to the fathers P.O.V, who again situates the viewer in the surroundings of the isolated farm – this isolation, introduced by the technique of loose framing, becomes a repeated motif. The continuity of the trucks continued voyage, between cuts to the children, is called Match on Action and is a traditional rule of continuity editing, which relates to spatial and temporal issues. These combined naturalistic techniques help to create an aesthetical sense of the real. This issue of the aesthetically real is combined with a concern to present normal diction and dialogue. The work of the farm is also represented as hard and the issue of immigration is treated as matter of fact. The use of exposition is characteristic of many films, and Will it Snow for Christmas? Is no different. It is this phase of the film that motifs are established; the irregularity of this film is that its aesthetics are more akin to documentary than other forms of French Cinema, such as the Heritage films, the Cinema du Look and French New Wave. 1.

The motif of the real is also encapsulated in the representation of time. The changing seasons bring corresponding activates and problems for the Mother and her Children. And in this way the story is represented as real through an episodic narrative, which moves along with simple cause and effect logic – a convention of most documentary films. The simplicity of seasonal change affecting the narrative ensures a sense of repetition is imbued in the films structure, along with a sense of the inevitable among the characters. We believe the films representation of life due to the seemingly logical procession of the seasons, but within this we also expect narrative closure with reference to the films title. As winter closes in we expect the narrative to change from an episodic collective into a neatly tied up ending, a closure of narrative found regularly in the nostalgia films of the 1980-90’s. 2. The last scene, where the mothers P.O.V shot shows the children enthusiastically playing in the snow, could be seen at a basic level as a tying up of narrative, the question in the title of the film is answered by its snowing on Christmas. In essence this ending is a continuation of the episodic nature of the film, all we were allowed to see before were episodes of experience, and the viewer can presume that as the seasons change again, the children, though older, will go through the same cycle every year.

1. Pramaggiore, M. & Wallis, T (Ed). Film a Critical Introduction, (London: Laurence King Publishing, 2007). PP 286-289

2. Lanzoni, R.F. French Cinema – From its Beginnings to the Present, (London: Continuum International Publishing 2004) PP 299-347


The Communication of Era In Cinema

Directors wishing to portray a definitive era in a movie use certain techniques which also produce nostalgic emotions of a sense of authenticity which are both beneficial to cinema as art and a commercial product. In Films such as O’ Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) the colour brown is used to produce an affect of a faded and lost past. This makes the film similar to looking at a very old photograph aged sepia-brown. This imbues the whole form of the film with a sense of a by-gone era. The use of browns also strips away, or inhibits, the editors’ [or whoever] ability to produce a slick glossy product as sepia-brown ensures an aesthetic affect which communicates a reality opposed to the whole editing process.

Another common technique, used more and more regularly due to the financial importance of a film having a commercially viable soundtrack, is the use of music. This is normally non-diegetic however occasionally this is a main part of the diegesis. One movie that uses music to produce a sense of era is Donnie Darko (2001). All through the film a classic eighties soundtrack is played which injects a sense of place, time and atmosphere. Using music of a definitive era helps communicate the atmosphere that the director wants as they can use a specific genre of music to imbue the film with an emotion. The music of the seventies can both be used to communicate a riotous sense of anger with a punk soundtrack and create a sense of love and romance with a use of disco soundtrack.