Focalization, Narration and Perspective in Cinema

 

Focalization is the perspective through which a narrative is presented. The style of focalization produces different styles of narrative and different conceptions of character. Hitchcock’s use of focalization ensured a sense of suspense and drama was produced. Hitchcock explained that a ‘Superior range of knowledge creates suspense [the essence of drama] because we can anticipate effects that the character cannot.’1 Essentially this is dramatic irony. Suspense and drama is produced when the audience knows the outcome or some alternative knowledge concerning the action on the screen. The perspective through which narrative is presented is important in the production of this superior range of knowledge. In the film Psycho (1960) when Lila is upstairs searching we are allowed the knowledge that Bates is downstairs. Lila doesn’t know this but we do. We hold our breath hoping that Lila gets out in time and every slow movement that Lila makes intensifies this panic. Hitchcock uses a objective, distant perspective to produce suspense and drama.

The range of knowledge and information we receive concerning that which affects the characters of a film is controlled by the type of narration and the style of focalization. In The Big Sleep (1946) we are given a fixed viewing position. An objective and closed-off focus on the protagonist Marlowe. We don’t get the same form of suspense as in Hitchcock’s Psycho because we never see more than Marlowe. We also rarely let into his thoughts or rationalizations. This can be explained by the attempt to make the film and Marlowe ‘more mysterious …[and interesting because] we do not know his inferences and deductions before he reveals them at the end.’2 However I personally believe this is the incorrect style for the film. I would assert that the The Big Sleep‘s style is incorrect because Chandler’s book and his Marlowe is interesting because of his continuously rationalizing and editorializing narrative.

Another similar film but one with a different style to The Big Sleep is Double Indemnity (1944). In this film we are given both the objective distance of The Big Sleep and a subjective style of focalization. We are also allowed the position of knowledge that Hitchcock utilized in Psycho. The beginning of the film we see a stumbling shot Walter Neff, we are given important information concerning his fate. The film proceeds by telling us how Neff comes to be shot through the technique of analepsis (flashback). What this does is create a marked reading of the events that follow. Our understanding of the chain of events that led to Neff’s destruction are coloured by our privileged position of knowledge. Although I dislike the production of The Big Sleep and its style of focalization it is not because the technique is flawed but rather because the style of the original text, Chandler’s novel, would lead itself to be more subjective and to contain the same style of rationalizing focalizer or voice of the novel.

 

1David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, London: McGraw-Hill Publishing, (1990), p. 66.

2David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, p. 67.

The Moral Ambiguity of The Detective Protagonist in Coogan’s Bluff

 

Coogan’s Bluff (1968)

The Western typically was a re-writing and re-imagining of America’s bloody heritage. This re-writing had the foolish Custer as a maverick hero for sometime and continually had the native American-Indian community as symbols of the dark side of ones’ psyche and as simple savages. Coogan’s Bluff and its successors Dirty Harry (1971) et al replaces the re-imagination of America’s past with the hope and dream for a better present which also returns to that re-imagination. One thing that is interesting concerning the appropriation or adoption of the individualistic western protagonist by the detective genre is the moral ambiguity of the protagonist. Robert Warshow comments that:

‘The Westerner at his best exhibits a moral ambiguity which darkens his image and saves him from absurdity; this ambiguity arises from the fact that, whatever his justifications, he is a killer of men.’.1

Essentially Warshow is highlighting that the western protagonist is always a killer and a trespasser of rules. This trait makes him attractive because he is effective in cleaning-up the sewers of a city. However his rule breaking also makes him an non-viable option as he punches, seduces and trespasses where and when he wishes and as Detective Lt. McElroy explains to Coogan “We have a system”. Essentially the switch from gunslinger to detective becomes difficult when one understands that it highlights the difficulty of the American past and American dream; to be both a rule keeper and a rule breaker. And as a detective and a gunslinger Coogan is both diametrically opposed sides at once. Coogan just can’t exist and that is just exactly what makes his character so attractive. Don Siegel’s film becomes an arena in which he can, in Coogan’s words, try “to picture it; the way it was” before and the way it is all at once.

 

1Robert Warshow, ‘Movie Chronicle: The Westerner’ in p. 475.

Character and the Hollywood Continuity System

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

As i mentioned in my post on The End of St. Petersburg (1927) Hollywood tends to concentrate on individuals rather than social or community-based forces as the engine for change and action. I have also mentioned here and there about the continuity system, which at all times hopes to ensure that the viewer identifies with, and understands, the motivations and nature of a central character. The Silence of the Lambs’  introductary scene is a clear indication of this form. The movie’s tagline ‘Clarice Starling, FBI. Brilliant. Vulnerable. Alone.’ is the exact concentration of what the continuity system has to communicate early to the viewer so that they can understand her character, motivations and conflicts. All of the characteristics (bar Vulnerable which is shown in the first scene with Hannibal) are instantly evident and are concentrated in a prolonged introductory first scene. Clarice is running alone, keeping time with herself, working hard beyond the call of duty. She is asked to see her superior for special assignment. Her loneliness and brilliance are both linked. This is proven as she walks into a lift. She is surrounded by people dressed in uniform red jumpers, she wears grey, she is an individual and alone amongst her peers. Her brilliance is proven by the use of a cut to her exiting the lift alone. Essentially the shot is symbolic of her reaching a level that none of her classmates reach. Again we are invited to infer that she is both alone and brilliant. We know she is FBI because she is training at their compound with the intent to graduate and we find out she is vulnerable later on with her meeting with Hannibal (and the use of Flashbacks to her childhood all centralized around her father). All important aspects of Clarice’s character are basically foregrounded in the first few scenes.

Critique of the Western Genre in Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man

 Dead Man (1995)

Jim Jarmusch’s film Dead Man critiques the myth of the western, principally the westerns’ conceptualization of white American protagonist as a competent, fearless and free thinking individual. Jarmusch does this by exploring the generic conventions of the western and ultmiately by altering and subverting its traditions. The cinematic genre of the western is typically defined by it’s strong protagonist and setting. The environment or setting of the western is traditionally a spacious post-civil war frontier in the south-west of America. This setting is a mirror image of the central protagonist; the vast open isolated desert reflects the individualistic pioneering character of the western figure. The shot selection also further augments the feeling of isolation and rugged individualism. A convention is the use of the extreme long shots to portray panoramic, expansive open spaces – even when the film is exclusively from the perspective of the protagonist, this open space, which overshadows the individual, is prevalent. The fact the protagonist survives in this space is what makes him admirable; that the protagonist sits on the border between civilisation and the wild and survives (whilst others shrivle up and die) proves his rugged pioneering independence.1


If a traditional western protagonist is a tough pioneer, then Dead Man’s William Blake [Johnny Depp] is the antithesis. A symbol of virginal inexperience Blake jumps in fear at the government sanctioned shooting of buffalo, and is surprised at Thel’s ownership of a pistol. The short lived relationship between Thel and Blake highlights the feminine aspects of the protagonist. While in her bedroom she controls the dialogue, and it is her sexuality that commands the screen space and camera’s focus. Thel’s ownership of a pistol, symbolically phallic, is metaphor of her strength and dominance over the more feminine Blake; it may even be representative of his lack masculinity, a traditional aspect of the central protagonist in westerns is the ownership and ability with firearms. Blake doesn’t sit on the barrier of civilisation and the wild, but the barriers of masculinity and femininity.

As well as character, the setting no longer reflects that rugged isolated individual thought of as so admirable, the landscape is seemingly a representation of paranoia and neurosis. The form of Dead Man creates a close, claustrophobic vision of the American with close-ups, point-of-view shots and landscapes with vertical lines that splinter and fragment the screen. This reversal of generic convention foregrounds the error of the traditional perceptions of the west and conceptualized heritage of America. The west wasn’t a large expanse with a sparse handful of Native Americans littering the horizon but an area with colonists, nature and Native Americans in direct competition with each other for breathing room, Dead Man represents the colonists as the trespasser rather than as the trespassed. Most westerns, as in John Ford’s The Searchers, the Native Americans are represented as trespassers encroaching on in the homesteads of the European settlers. Jim Jarmusch highlights the cultural conception of the west as a rugged place of individualistic through manipulation of generic conventions, by exploring convention film becomes a space in-which a director can explore and expand on ideas of critical and theoretical principle.

1M, Pramaggiore & T, Wallis. (ed), Film A Critical Introduction, London: Laurence King Publishing, (2007), pp. 397.