Film Criticism

I do not mean we should become the sort of critic who gives you their subjective opinions about whether Shrek II is good value or not and if you can safely take your elderly parents to see it. This is a completely alien notion to British film critics, but continental film critics actually think that there is a systematic method that you can use to understand how films work. There is a huge amount of work on this, in fact, involving film as ideology and deploying several substantial theoretical positions, including marxism, semiotics, and feminism. There is one particular debate which is of special interest, however, because it has such wide applications, extending well beyond film itself. This is the 'realism debate'.

How are films or television programmes made to look realistic? We know that a tremendous amount of skill goes into this. Cameras are carefully positioned, locations are carefully chosen, specially built sets are lit, dress and speech patterns are carefully researched, expert academic analyses are consulted to get historical details right. But the film making team also needs to make things look right for film, for the contemporary audience -- too much historical accuracy (like Roman soldiers actually speaking Latin) would make it hard to enjoy the film. After a great deal of careful close control, rehearsal, and the keeping of extensive records for continuity purposes, what appears on the screen actually looks like what the audience would expect of, say, the Titanic's maiden voyage, the Spanish Armada, the Wild West, London in the 19th century, or whatever. So the first point I want to make is that realism is based around what the audience expects, not necessarily what is actually the case. The whole idea is to get the audience to consent to the illusion that has been constructed. If the film offers the right combination of familiarity and novelty, viewers will go for it and 'suspend' any remaining disbelief. We still do have to suspend disbelief -- that a camera was present at the Battle of Waterloo, that people were really killed by a shark, that John Wayne really was a centurion at the crucifixion -- and so on.

There are other subtleties as well. Moving pictures have to be edited together in a way that makes them look real. This is also artificial, but cinema audiences have got used to it. Clever editors will, for example, choose edit points so that the eyelines of the characters in the different shots match up. They so contrive things that sound carries on across the cuts in vision. They quite frequently follow the  '180 degree rule', that says the camera stays on the same side when photographing characters talking or interaction taking place -- one character speaks from the left of the screen, while the other speaks from the right, and this is maintained throughout the scene. There are all sorts of other implicit rules and practices -- but the point is that the audience never notices them. There is, for example, a conventional series of shots to make different points -- establishing shots, two-shots, close-ups to convey emotion, all-seeing panoramic shots and so on. All that clever work to create the illusion of realism is invisible to the audience.

Finally, in this very quick review of film techniques, narratives are made to add the illusion of realism. For our purposes, the narrative is simply the story that joins together the different scenes. Again, there are a number of conventional rules and practices employed by the film industry, studied by the critics but almost completely unrecognised by the audience. One technique, for example, is to have an authoritative central narrator tell the story, as in the classic documentary. This narrator sometimes keeps talking off-camera, while we see images that support what he or she is saying. Other techniques include the so-called  'factual anchors'-- eyewitnesses are taken back to the actual locations of the events they are describing; precise dates and times appear on the screen; expert testimony is given, and we know they are experts because they usually appear in 'realistic' academic offices in front of rows of books, and their titles appear on screen beneath the pictures. The narrator makes sense of all these different images for the audience. Sometimes even the studio layout helps -- protagonists face each other with the narrator in the middle, 'extreme' opinions are proferred by people on the extremes of the set. There is a booklist on these techniques if anyone wants one (email me).

This leads to the notion of a realist narrative. This technique was actually first developed in novels, according to one of the foremost critics (Colin MacCabe). What happens is that we see read a number of different accounts of events offered by different characters. These can sometimes be completely contradictory, arising from opposed points of view. However, there is one privileged account which makes sense of all the other ones -- the narrator's again. In novels, it is sometimes the all-seeing author who breaks in to tell us which characters are to be trusted, what they are really thinking, why they are behaving as they do, or why we should believe some rather than others. In films, there is sometimes a narrator, but more commonly it is the director who is the narrator, and he or she tells the story. Not explicitly, of course, but by using the camera and the screenplay.

What happens is that the various confusing accounts are eventually made clear -- some characters have been misled, some are lying, some are genuine but ignorant of the complete picture. Only we the audience see the complete picture. This gives us some privileged knowledge over the characters themselves. To take an obvious example -- we know the bad guy is lying because we have already seen him committing the foul deed. It also delivers a pleasurable sense of having gained some knowledge of reality -- we have seen through the lies, and the confusions, and we now know what the case is. This is the  'knowledge effect'. We can come to the view, after a realist film, that one of the characters is right, or, more subtly, that reality is complex enough to sustain several views. Hollywood films generally confirm our 'common sense', maybe in 'ideological' ways. We know the Vietnamese were unscrupulous child-killers. We know that even intelligent businesswomen will give it all up for love. We know that black people have unnatural athletic prowess but are unreliable in a crisis.

A couple of popular film genres can be used to illustrate this notion of a realist narrative which delivers a knowledge effect. The classic detective story is the easiest. We see a lot of different characters, and, at first, any one of them could be the murderer. We then follow each character through, listening to their account of what happened, and sometimes seeing some of the events 'for ourselves'. We can sometimes even be shown things that none of the characters know about!  In the final scene, the detective reveals all -- but the clever viewer has long begun to suspect the truth by following the clues strewn around the film by the director. Some critics have suggested that the detective story especially empowers women who can read the emotional language of  the characters' 'looks and glances' better than their male counterparts.

Lots of other popular films also follow this kind of realist narrative, however. In the classic James Bond film, which has been much analysed by the critics, there is no narrative tension as in the detective story -- we know that Bond will win in the end. However, we do not know how he will achieve his goal and this produces little mini-tensions. As the story unwinds, we are given lots of chances to see characters plotting against each other, and to see how Bond eventually manages to prevail. British male viewers are particularly likely to find pleasure in seeing Bond rely on British virtues of improvisation, charm, resilience and determination, and on the male qualities of facing down male opponents while resisting the charms of female ones. Citizens of other countries are not so fortunate, of course -- Americans have lots of money but little skill, Russians are simple souls, either committed communist fanatics or corrupted by the mafia, (North) Koreans are fanatical killers. These values are confirmed as worthwhile and  'realistic'.

It is this confirming of common sense that has made a number of radical critics very skeptical about realism as a technique. Realism plays to the gallery. However, it also flatters the audience. As they follow the clues, hints and guidance offered by the narrative, they can even come to imagine that they themselves have seen the point, and uncovered the truth about reality. But this knowledge is an effect of the clever structuring of narrative.

There is particular feminist variant of this analysis too, by Mulvey. Mulvey argues that classic film narratives typically privilege male points of view, while pretending just to be natural or neutral. The most obvious way in which this is apparent is that when women do appear on film it is usually as (narrative) supplements to the male characters -- as 'love interests', to fill in the emotional background, to explain the passion and commitment that the male characters reveal, to personify the threats to male motions of discipline and social order, and so on. Male viewers find it very pleasing to see women being depicted in this way. In the most explicit case, male viewers find it sexually tantalising to take the point of view of the camera which shows women behaving as if they are unaware of being observed. This pleasure involves the viewer, who also then embraces the underlying male narrative.

What has all has to do with argument and policy, I hear you ask? Well one possibility is that the realist narrative is not confined to films or novels, but to other kinds of story- telling as well. I have myself attempted to analyse popular academic strategies in terms of their following a realist narrative, especially in social science (see this file) . What happens is that a lecture or journal article commonly begins by outlining a number of contradictory theories or approaches: this is the convention of academic debate or 'balance'. Then the privileged theory or approach finally appears, following the story favoured by the particular author or speaker.

A common variant in academic work is to begin with theories that had had their day in the past, but now are to be replaced by some more recent account. One that I particularly analyzed is favoured by a particular species of marxist (I call them gramscians), who want to say that lots of sociologists and historians have begun to study a particular problem, but have only got so far. These sociologists and historians can be congratulated and patronised. In order to complete the analysis, we now need to consider gramscianism. A more philosophical variant explains that classic divisions between approaches in sociology can be reconciled by stepping back and taking a more complex view of the social totality. When you read or listen, you can walk away thinking that you have perceived something important, glimpsed some complex reality that seems to make more sense. In practice, the rival accounts have already been depicted in such a way that gramscianism can hardly fail to triumph. Usually, the narrative structure offers the reverse of what has actually happened -- in practice the other accounts have to be rendered as flawed or inferior versions of gramscianism first, and then the story can be run as if that is a natural or obvious  conclusion. Indeed, if all works well, you, the reader or listener, will be able to anticipate that conclusion before it is actually stated -- you then think that is 'your' knowledge!

I have mentioned above televangelism as offering a classic narrative structure to involve and bind the audience An excellent analysis of the structure of educational television by Ellsworth also notes the realistic narrative put to use in structuring complex materials. In addition, an excellent critique of ethnography (by Clough)  argues that ethnography also uses realist writing techniques of various kinds to deliver its own  'knowledge effect'-- after reading ethnographic accounts, you are prepared to accept them as realistic ('authentic'). Analysing these writing techniques offers a deep insight into how empirical data and rival accounts are carefully managed so as to let the privileged one -- the ethnographer's account --  appear as plausible, valid, and expert. The analysis also reveals the pleasures induced in the reader by techniques like balancing the familiarity with the strangeness of the culture in question, or questioning some of our prejudices but confirming our knowledge of 'human nature'

Can we apply this to policy, as well as to academic research? Clearly, we could have a crack at any promotional videos (including web-based animations etc) and ask questions like
  1. Is there a privileged discourse here and if so, who carries it? What is the role of the narrator ( if there is an actual person), and how is their authority established and  maintained? Are there any reconstructions, for example, any experts or witnesses? How is our 'common-sense' included in the narrative? What 'knowledge effects' are delivered?
  2. Is this discourse gendered (or does it favour any other particular dominant group like white people). Are members of less powerful groups seen as objects for the narrative or do they have a narrative role of their own? Are they 'gazed' at and, if so, is this a source of pleasure for the viewer (who might be looking at various 'exotics' for example)?
Writers of conventional documents might well lack the creative skills of novelists or film-makers, but they will often be much practiced in making reports readable. At the very least, you might want to examine techniques deployed in policy statements to make them seem  'realistic'. Documentary photographs, perhaps, or bits of talk with the actual people involved?  'Factual anchors', using precise dates, times and details? Citation of experts? Arguments which allow for then build on our 'common-sense' understandings? Realistic effects like these might be ways of involving readers, getting them to suspend disbelief, and getting them to confirm the authenticity of the analysis.

Above all, what about the narrative? Does it set out to offer a number of views of the problem and its solutions before carefully developing a privileged account? Is the reader being led towards support for a particular policy or development all along? Are the alternatives presented as fair and reasonable options, or simply as 'straw men' in order to make the chosen perspective look the most  'realistic' one? How are we involved in the story -- which of our 'common-sense' beliefs is being appealed to, and what are we expected to 'discover' at the end?

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