Wednesday, May 31, 2017

A Limitation of Filming

A counter-argument to my previous post.

One limitation of imagery in film is that it can be comprehensible at first glance.

Of course, camera trickery like fade-ins or blurring can delay comprehension, as in the flashback sequence from Once Upon a Time in the West, or a deeply subjective viewpoint can be used to present initial confusion, as in the David Lynch adaptation of Dune, when Duke Leto, dying, mistakes another person for the Baron Harkonnen. But I suspect most audiences would recognize these tricks as unusual methods of presentation in a medium otherwise more suited to clarity -- even if that clarity shows unusual perspectives or juxtapositions, as in Vertov's Man With A Movie Camera.

In writing, by contrast, a subjective impression can be built clause by clause, and because narratives often rely on subjective points of view, the readers do not feel any need to reject the method as a contrivance.

My favourite example of this gradual build-up by subjective impressions can be found in a story by M. R. James, "Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance":

"The main occupation of this evening at any rate was settled. The tracing of the plan for Lady Wardrop and the careful collation of it with the original meant a couple of hours’ work at least. Accordingly, soon after nine Humphreys had his materials put out in the library and began. It was a still, stuffy evening; windows had to stand open, and he had more than one grisly encounter with a bat. These unnerving episodes made him keep the tail of his eye on the window. Once or twice it was a question whether there was -- not a bat, but something more considerable -- that had a mind to join him. How unpleasant it would be if someone had slipped noiselessly over the sill and was crouching on the floor!

"The tracing of the plan was done: it remained to compare it with the original, and to see whether any paths had been wrongly closed or left open. With one finger on each paper, he traced out the course that must be followed from the entrance. There were one or two slight mistakes but here, near the centre, was a bad confusion, probably due to the entry of the Second or Third Bat. Before correcting the copy he followed out carefully the last turnings of the path on the original. These, at least, were right; they led without a hitch to the middle space. Here was a feature which need not be repeated on the copy -- an ugly black spot about the size of a shilling. Ink? No. It resembled a hole, but how should a hole be there? He stared at it with tired eyes: the work of tracing had been very laborious, and he was drowsy and oppressed.... But surely this was a very odd hole. It seemed to go not only through the paper, but through the table on which it lay. Yes, and through the floor below that, down, and still down, even into infinite depths. He craned over it, utterly bewildered. Just as, when you were a child, you may have pored over a square inch of counterpane until it became a landscape with wooded hills, and perhaps even churches and houses, and you lost all thought of the true size of yourself and it, so this hole seemed to Humphreys for the moment the only thing in the world. For some reason it was hateful to him from the first, but he had gazed at it for some moments before any feeling of anxiety came upon him; and then it did come, stronger and stronger -- a horror lest something might emerge from it, and a really agonizing conviction that a terror was on its way, from the sight of which he would not be able to escape. Oh yes, far, far down there was a movement, and the movement was upwards -- towards the surface. Nearer and nearer it came, and it was of a blackish-grey colour with more than one dark hole. It took shape as a face -- a human face -- a burnt human face: and with the odious writhings of a wasp creeping out of a rotten apple there clambered forth an appearance of a form, waving black arms prepared to clasp the head that was bending over them."

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

A Limitation of Writing

In the film Storks, two characters who have spent the entire movie jousting verbally with each other find themselves in happier circumstances. One begins to joust again; the other says nothing, but merely nods -- a beautiful moment, beautifully subtle. The silent image by itself conveys a new emotion.

In Psycho, Norman Bates leans over to stare at the motel's guest ledger, and the unusual angle on his face, the chewing motions of his jaw, the deep shadows, turn him into something unrecognizably strange.

In Zootopia, Nick Wilde wears a shirt that matches the wallpaper of his childhood home; in his pocket, he carries his Ranger Scout kerchief. No one ever points out these hints of lingering sadness, but they become as obvious as old scars.

In a Tony Mitchell article from 1982, "Tarkovsy in Italy," the director talks about, "Examples of a form of thought and how this thought is expressed through film.... In Seven Samurai, in the sequence in which the youngest member of the group is afraid, we see how Kurosawa transmits this sense of fear. The boy is trembling in the grass, but we don't see him trembling, we see the grass and flowers trembling."

Films can reveal such details without comment, but in a story, they must be spelt out; they must be made obvious, which robs them of any magic we might feel in a chance encounter. An aching limitation.