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Sunday, April 18, 2010

Characterization: A Filmmaker’s Contribution

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

Filmmakers are neither novelists nor short story authors, but, like both, directors are committed to bringing characters to life for their audiences. Because moviemakers cannot directly explore characters’ thoughts through a narrator’s exposition or the character’s own stream of consciousness or interior monologues, they must rely upon other techniques. These techniques, used by a novelist or a short story writer, can enhance and support traditional narrative techniques of characterization, offered to readers by means of description rather than camera work.

Here’s an example of how Alfred Hitchcock conveys emotion on the screen; he is discussing a scene from his movie Sabotage:

It was a supper table. The man complained about the color of the greens. All I did was to show the close-up of the woman, about ordinary bust size, and the man the same. Sometimes the man from her eye-line, sometimes the woman from his eye-line. That was all we were concerned with. The most important aspect of the scene was her hand. It was essential to play up her using the carving knife. She carved meat with it, and then found herself helping him to vegetables with the carving knife. She realized what was wrong. Then I showed her hand dropping the knife, trying to get rid of it, and then having to pick it up because more meat needed carving--and dropping it with a clatter. Then immediately a close-up of the man hearing the clatter. Then the woman’s hand clasping and unclasping over the handle of the carving knife. All we saw was a foreground of a table; glasses, and cutlery, and her hand hovering. Then back to him. He got up, and the camera tilting [sic] up with him. He realizes his danger. I never bothered to show the room, and I allowed that man to go right past the camera towards the woman; and, then again he comes to her and he looks down, and the camera goes right from him, following his thought, down to the knife and her hand still hovering over it. And then he makes a grab and she gets it first. Then the two hands: her hands win. And then all you see is two figures, and the man gives a cry and falls (Hitchcock on Hitchcock: Selected Writings and Interviews, ed. Sidney Gottlieb [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995], 186-187).
In “The Philosophy of Composition,” Edgar Allan Poe explains why the end of a story is all-important in determining how the rest of the narrative is structured and told. Hitchcock subscribes to a similar notion. For him, every scene and every montage must be carefully and deliberately worked out, often with storyboards, before it is committed to film: “The director,” Irving Singer, declares, “must have a prior conception of the response he wishes to achieve and how it can be evoked,” for, otherwise, the Sabotage montage of which Hitchcock speaks would have come to naught. Indeed, Hitchcock himself argues, “To have shot all that in a long view would have been useless. It had to be made up of these little pieces. With a first-class director the final cutting is a simple job, if he has constructed the scene in his mind in advance and knows what he wants to achieve” (Three Philosophical Filmmakers [Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2004], 10-11).

According to Hitchcock, Singer says, “there are two primary uses of cutting or montage in film: montage to create ideas and montage to create violence and emotion.” In his discussion of the Sabotage scene, Hitchcock explains how he used montage to perform the latter objective; Singer offers an example of the director’s use of this technique to create the former: in Rear Window, Singer contends, Hitchcock creates ideas (that is, depicts a character’s thoughts on film) by “cutting back and forth to what James Stewart sees (and shows in his facial expressions) as he watches what is happening outside his window” (13).

Besides his views as to how to create thought and emotion on film, Hitchcock also had specific thoughts as to how characters should be represented. According to Singer, the director rarely achieved suspense in his films as the result of relating it “to someone’s character”; rather, “it is because we immediately perceive the innocence and (most often) friendliness of some ordinary person in his movies that we are lured into feeling concerned about what might happen to him or her” (129).

For Hitchcock, characters, like actors, were necessary evils, as it were, to the filmmaker’s true purpose, which was to create and project suspense and other forms of emotion. “His innocent victims,” Singer contends, “ordinary people who sometimes end up doing heroic acts, rarely behave as they do because of abstract thought or sensory need or even passionate impulse.
They flee from imminent danger or engage in a secretive and solitary mission that pits them against something that is determined to destroy them. The drama concludes when they succeed, for then nothing perilous remains to prolong suspense” (230).

The appeal of such characters, Singer suggests, is in their very ordinariness, for they represent stand-ins for audience members who, as ordinary people themselves, lead ordinary lives: Do we really care about the happy married life that the threatened couples will now presumably enter into? Not at all. We were fascinated by them only because they were surrogates for ourselves as imperfect human beings, and of all other persons who have also so much to fear in mere existence, which seems forever poised to victimize every finite creature (231).
Hitchcock had definite ideas about female characters and villains, too. His ideas about female characters are clearest, perhaps, in the type of actress he preferred to direct. He sought “elegant women,” Singer says, “even ‘ladylike women’ . . . rather than sexy fleshpots,” preferring “Nordic types because their sexiness is deeply hidden in them and must be discovered instead of being flaunted,” and “he thought that stylish actresses. . . have the greatest range of cinematic expressiveness,” although, as raw materials, so to speak, “they too would have to be molded, even manipulated by him, in order to perform as he desired” (65-66).

Hitchcock wants his audience to see his villains as realistic, believable characters. To this end, Singer says, the filmmaker “give[s] his villains a pleasant, often suave and seductive appearance as opposed to his innocent protagonists,” which, Singer believes, “keep[s] his thrillers from degenerating into horror films” (231).

In a previous article, I listed various ways by which novelists and short story writers depict their character’s personalities. To these techniques may be added the montage that Hitchcock uses, represented on the page in images conveyed through description rather than as pictures filmed by a camera and projected onto screens by projectors.. Interspersed or alternated with traditional narrative methods of characterization, the cinematic montage, effected through description and, indeed, exposition, can add a dimension to novels and short stories which is present at this point more in cinema and theater than anywhere else.

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Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Sometimes, in demonstrating how to brainstorm about an essay topic, selecting horror movies, I ask students to name the titles of as many such movies as spring to mind (seldom a difficult feat for them, as the genre remains quite popular among young adults). Then, I ask them to identify the monster, or threat--the antagonist, to use the proper terminology--that appears in each of the films they have named. Again, this is usually a quick and easy task. Finally, I ask them to group the films’ adversaries into one of three possible categories: natural, paranormal, or supernatural. This is where the fun begins.

It’s a simple enough matter, usually, to identify the threats which fall under the “natural” label, especially after I supply my students with the scientific definition of “nature”: everything that exists as either matter or energy (which are, of course, the same thing, in different forms--in other words, the universe itself. The supernatural is anything which falls outside, or is beyond, the universe: God, angels, demons, and the like, if they exist. Mad scientists, mutant cannibals (and just plain cannibals), serial killers, and such are examples of natural threats. So far, so simple.

What about borderline creatures, though? Are vampires, werewolves, and zombies, for example, natural or supernatural? And what about Freddy Krueger? In fact, what does the word “paranormal” mean, anyway? If the universe is nature and anything outside or beyond the universe is supernatural, where does the paranormal fit into the scheme of things?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “paranormal,” formed of the prefix “para,” meaning alongside, and “normal,” meaning “conforming to common standards, usual,” was coined in 1920. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “paranormal” to mean “beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation.” In other words, the paranormal is not supernatural--it is not outside or beyond the universe; it is natural, but, at the present, at least, inexplicable, which is to say that science cannot yet explain its nature. The same dictionary offers, as examples of paranormal phenomena, telepathy and “a medium’s paranormal powers.”

Wikipedia offers a few other examples of such phenomena or of paranormal sciences, including the percentages of the American population which, according to a Gallup poll, believes in each phenomenon, shown here in parentheses: psychic or spiritual healing (54), extrasensory perception (ESP) (50), ghosts (42), demons (41), extraterrestrials (33), clairvoyance and prophecy (32), communication with the dead (28), astrology (28), witchcraft (26), reincarnation (25), and channeling (15); 36 percent believe in telepathy.

As can be seen from this list, which includes demons, ghosts, and witches along with psychics and extraterrestrials, there is a confusion as to which phenomena and which individuals belong to the paranormal and which belong to the supernatural categories. This confusion, I believe, results from the scientism of our age, which makes it fashionable for people who fancy themselves intelligent and educated to dismiss whatever cannot be explained scientifically or, if such phenomena cannot be entirely rejected, to classify them as as-yet inexplicable natural phenomena. That way, the existence of a supernatural realm need not be admitted or even entertained. Scientists tend to be materialists, believing that the real consists only of the twofold unity of matter and energy, not dualists who believe that there is both the material (matter and energy) and the spiritual, or supernatural. If so, everything that was once regarded as having been supernatural will be regarded (if it cannot be dismissed) as paranormal and, maybe, if and when it is explained by science, as natural. Indeed, Sigmund Freud sought to explain even God as but a natural--and in Freud’s opinion, an obsolete--phenomenon.

Meanwhile, among skeptics, there is an ongoing campaign to eliminate the paranormal by explaining them as products of ignorance, misunderstanding, or deceit. Ridicule is also a tactic that skeptics sometimes employ in this campaign. For example, The Skeptics’ Dictionary contends that the perception of some “events” as being of a paranormal nature may be attributed to “ignorance or magical thinking.” The dictionary is equally suspicious of each individual phenomenon or “paranormal science” as well. Concerning psychics’ alleged ability to discern future events, for example, The Skeptic’s Dictionary quotes Jay Leno (“How come you never see a headline like 'Psychic Wins Lottery'?”), following with a number of similar observations:

Psychics don't rely on psychics to warn them of impending disasters. Psychics don't predict their own deaths or diseases. They go to the dentist like the rest of us. They're as surprised and disturbed as the rest of us when they have to call a plumber or an electrician to fix some defect at home. Their planes are delayed without their being able to anticipate the delays. If they want to know something about Abraham Lincoln, they go to the library; they don't try to talk to Abe's spirit. In short, psychics live by the known laws of nature except when they are playing the psychic game with people.
In An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, James Randi, a magician who exercises a skeptical attitude toward all things alleged to be paranormal or supernatural, takes issue with the notion of such phenomena as well, often employing the same arguments and rhetorical strategies as The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

In short, the difference between the paranormal and the supernatural lies in whether one is a materialist, believing in only the existence of matter and energy, or a dualist, believing in the existence of both matter and energy and spirit. If one maintains a belief in the reality of the spiritual, he or she will classify such entities as angels, demons, ghosts, gods, vampires, and other threats of a spiritual nature as supernatural, rather than paranormal, phenomena. He or she may also include witches (because, although they are human, they are empowered by the devil, who is himself a supernatural entity) and other natural threats that are energized, so to speak, by a power that transcends nature and is, as such, outside or beyond the universe. Otherwise, one is likely to reject the supernatural as a category altogether, identifying every inexplicable phenomenon as paranormal, whether it is dark matter or a teenage werewolf. Indeed, some scientists dedicate at least part of their time to debunking allegedly paranormal phenomena, explaining what natural conditions or processes may explain them, as the author of The Serpent and the Rainbow explains the creation of zombies by voodoo priests.

Based upon my recent reading of Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to the Fantastic, I add the following addendum to this essay.

According to Todorov:

The fantastic. . . lasts only as long as a certain hesitation [in deciding] whether or not what they [the reader and the protagonist] perceive derives from "reality" as it exists in the common opinion. . . . If he [the reader] decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we can say that the work belongs to the another genre [than the fantastic]: the uncanny. If, on the contrary, he decides that new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, we enter the genre of the marvelous (The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, 41).
Todorov further differentiates these two categories by characterizing the uncanny as “the supernatural explained” and the marvelous as “the supernatural accepted” (41-42).

Interestingly, the prejudice against even the possibility of the supernatural’s existence which is implicit in the designation of natural versus paranormal phenomena, which excludes any consideration of the supernatural, suggests that there are no marvelous phenomena; instead, there can be only the uncanny. Consequently, for those who subscribe to this view, the fantastic itself no longer exists in this scheme, for the fantastic depends, as Todorov points out, upon the tension of indecision concerning to which category an incident belongs, the natural or the supernatural. The paranormal is understood, by those who posit it, in lieu of the supernatural, as the natural as yet unexplained.

And now, back to a fate worse than death: grading students’ papers.

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My Cup of Blood

Anyone who becomes an aficionado of anything tends, eventually, to develop criteria for elements or features of the person, place, or thing of whom or which he or she has become enamored. Horror fiction--admittedly not everyone’s cuppa blood--is no different (okay, maybe it’s a little different): it, too, appeals to different fans, each for reasons of his or her own. Of course, in general, book reviews, the flyleaves of novels, and movie trailers suggest what many, maybe even most, readers of a particular type of fiction enjoy, but, right here, right now, I’m talking more specifically--one might say, even more eccentrically. In other words, I’m talking what I happen to like, without assuming (assuming makes an “ass” of “u” and “me”) that you also like the same. It’s entirely possible that you will; on the other hand, it’s entirely likely that you won’t.

Anyway, this is what I happen to like in horror fiction:

Small-town settings in which I get to know the townspeople, both the good, the bad, and the ugly. For this reason alone, I’m a sucker for most of Stephen King’s novels. Most of them, from 'Salem's Lot to Under the Dome, are set in small towns that are peopled by the good, the bad, and the ugly. Part of the appeal here, granted, is the sense of community that such settings entail.

Isolated settings, such as caves, desert wastelands, islands, mountaintops, space, swamps, where characters are cut off from civilization and culture and must survive and thrive or die on their own, without assistance, by their wits and other personal resources. Many are the examples of such novels and screenplays, but Alien, The Shining, The Descent, Desperation, and The Island of Dr. Moreau, are some of the ones that come readily to mind.

Total institutions as settings. Camps, hospitals, military installations, nursing homes, prisons, resorts, spaceships, and other worlds unto themselves are examples of such settings, and Sleepaway Camp, Coma, The Green Mile, and Aliens are some of the novels or films that take place in such settings.

Anecdotal scenes--in other words, short scenes that showcase a character--usually, an unusual, even eccentric, character. Both Dean Koontz and the dynamic duo, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, excel at this, so I keep reading their series (although Koontz’s canine companions frequently--indeed, almost always--annoy, as does his relentless optimism).

Atmosphere, mood, and tone. Here, King is king, but so is Bentley Little. In the use of description to terrorize and horrify, both are masters of the craft.

A bit of erotica (okay, okay, sex--are you satisfied?), often of the unusual variety. Sex sells, and, yes, sex whets my reader’s appetite. Bentley Little is the go-to guy for this spicy ingredient, although Koontz has done a bit of seasoning with this spice, too, in such novels as Lightning and Demon Seed (and, some say, Hung).

Believable characters. Stephen King, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and Dan Simmons are great at creating characters that stick to readers’ ribs.

Innovation. Bram Stoker demonstrates it, especially in his short story “Dracula’s Guest,” as does H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, and a host of other, mostly classical, horror novelists and short story writers. For an example, check out my post on Stoker’s story, which is a real stoker, to be sure. Stephen King shows innovation, too, in ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, It, and other novels. One might even argue that Dean Koontz’s something-for-everyone, cross-genre writing is innovative; he seems to have been one of the first, if not the first, to pen such tales.

Technique. Check out Frank Peretti’s use of maps and his allusions to the senses in Monster; my post on this very topic is worth a look, if I do say so myself, which, of course, I do. Opening chapters that accomplish a multitude of narrative purposes (not usually all at once, but successively) are attractive, too, and Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are as good as anyone, and better than many, at this art.

A connective universe--a mythos, if you will, such as both H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, and, to a lesser extent, Dean Koontz, Bentley Little, and even Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have created through the use of recurring settings, characters, themes, and other elements of fiction.

A lack of pretentiousness. Dean Koontz has it, as do Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Bentley Little, and (to some extent, although he has become condescending and self-indulgent of late, Stephen King); unfortunately, both Dan Simmons and Robert McCammon have become too self-important in their later works, Simmons almost to the point of becoming unreadable. Come on, people, you’re writing about monsters--you should be humble.

Longevity. Writers who have been around for a while usually get better, Stephen King, Dan Simmons, and Robert McCammon excepted.

Pacing. Neither too fast nor too slow. Dean Koontz is good, maybe the best, here, of contemporary horror writers.

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