Archive for the 'Narrative strategies' Category
The Apartment (1960).
Rory Kelly, whom I met some years ago at a conference of the Society for Cognitive Studies of the Moving Image, has been a pioneer in linking the practices of film production to larger issues of narrative, performance, and artistic form. What follows is a version of a superb paper he gave at the Society’s annual meeting in Ithaca in June. Since Kristin and I are always eager to know how practitioners think of their craft, we jumped at the chance to pass along his thoughts in one of our guest blog entries.
Rory comes fully prepared to the task. Currently an Assistant Professor in the Production/Directing Program at UCLA, he has been a bright light in filmmaking for many years. His first feature, Sleep with Me (1994) premiered as an Official Selection at Cannes and was released by MGM/UA. His second feature, Some Girl (1998), garnered him the DGA-sponsored Best Director Award at the Los Angeles Film Festival, and his 2006 short, The Women, premiered at the Long Island Film Festival. He was also co-executive producer of mtvU’s Sucks Less with Kevin Smith. Rory has been a Film Independent Screenwriting Fellow and is currently working on several research projects, including studies of discourse analysis and emotional expression in film. At the same time, thanks to a 2016-2017 Heillman Fellowship, he is preparing a feature documentary about racism in America, To Someday Understand.
Here’s Rory on a perennial problem of the screenwriter: the character arc.
Since the 1960s, the character arc has become all but obligatory in Hollywood movies. Genres like sci-fi and horror, once largely unconcerned with character change, now often include it. Compare, for example, the 1953 version of War of the Worlds with Steven Spielberg’s 2005 remake. In the latter the alien invaders are not only defeated, but in the process Tom Cruise’s character, Ray Ferrier, becomes a better father.
Why has character change become so prominent? In The Way Hollywood Tells It (2006), David offered some suggestions. The psychological probing in plays by Arthur Miller, Paddy Chayefsky, and Tennessee Williams became popular models of serious drama. Teachers and writers were persuaded by Lajos Egri’s book, The Art of Dramatic Writing (1946), in which the author advises that characters should grow over the course of a play. There was also the impact of self-actualization movements of the 1960s and 1970s that held out the promise of personal growth and transformation.
It’s also likely that star power has had considerable influence. When trying to raise financing for a low-budget indie script a few years back, my collaborator and I were advised by three different seasoned producers to give our protagonist a more pronounced arc or we would never be able to attract a name actress to the role. Whether they were right or not, I do not know, but their shared assumption about attracting talent is telling.
Given how common the character arc has become, we need to better understand how it is typically handled. I think we can identify and analyze six narrative strategies that create a particular character type: the protagonist who is flawed but is capable of positive psychological change. My primary example will be The Apartment (1960).
I’ll also consider aspects of character change in Casablanca (1942), Jaws (1975), and About a Boy (2002). This list will allow me to consider the character arc over six decades, from the studio era to contemporary Hollywood, and across several genres. Limited as it is, this set of films suggests that certain techniques of character change recur again and again. In tracing them, I’ll occasionally make reference to the four-part plot pattern Kristin has set out in Storytelling in the New Hollywood (1999) and several entries on this site: the Setup, the Complicating Action, the Development, and the Climax.
A six-step program
First, a filmmaker seeking to construct a character arc will almost inevitably begin by establishing that his or her protagonist is of (1) Two Minds. I mean by this that the character has competing impulses. Think of Rick in Casablanca. On the one hand he is inclined towards communal action; on the other hand he sticks his neck out for no one. This latter behavior is solidified during the Setup portion when he assists in Ugarte’s arrest.
It can be termed Rick’s (2) Negative Behavior Pattern. It is a pattern because it is a type of behavior Rick enacts again and again, as when he repeatedly refuses to give the letters of transit to Victor and Ilsa. The film even turns Rick’s selfishness into a motif.
Still, Rick retains an impulse towards virtuous behavior, his (3) Positive Behavior Pattern. During the Setup, for example, he does not allow a notorious Nazi to gamble in his café. Later he helps a destitute young couple earn passage to America by allowing them to win at roulette.
The film as well makes a motif of Rick’s virtuous side.
The ongoing interaction of these two behavior patterns allows the filmmakers to maintain audience sympathy for Rick, to motivate his final change of heart—if Rick were not of two minds, his final transformation would come out of nowhere—and to delay that change of heart long enough to create expectations and suspense.
What often postpones a protagonist’s change of heart is a (4) False Belief. In many films a misunderstanding is introduced that motivates the protagonist’s negative behavior pattern. Because of this the character need only discover the truth in order to be reborn. Think again of Rick. It is because he falsely believes that Ilsa once jilted him, leaving him alone in the rain at a train station in Paris, that he has become a sullen saloonkeeper who sticks his neck out for no one.
But once Rick learns the truth—that Ilsa left him because she discovered her husband was alive—Rick forgives her. He then devises a scheme to help her and Victor escape, and he makes plans to join the Resistance. The truth, in short, sets Rick free and quickly and efficiently allows for his change of heart.
Another way to look at Rick’s transformation is that his false belief about Ilsa has made him essentially a nihilist who believes that there is nothing worth living for. When Victor says, “If we stop fighting our enemies, the world will die,” Rick replies, “What of it? Then it’ll be out of its misery.” Seen from this angle, when Ilsa finally convinces Rick of the truth, we are meant to infer that his change of heart is the result of a realization that love and loyalty still exist in the world.
The final two strategies I want to discuss concern the story world. In the case of flawed protagonists the rules and values of the fictional world may be established as conflicted in a way that matches the protagonist’s competing impulses. On the one hand there is what I term the (5) Normal World. This constitutes the dominant rules and values in play as the movie begins. Against this there is what I term the (6) Possible World. This constitutes what the normal world should be.
Think once more of Casablanca. That city is established as a place where a great many people have abandoned their better impulses and are out only for themselves. The primary representative of this worldview is the charming but corrupt Captain Renault. However, the story world also includes Victor and other members of the Resistance, and they are believers in a new world; one based upon a common cause. So the story world is, like Rick, flawed but of two minds.
Rick occupies a psychological space between Renault and Victor. In the end, by siding with Victor, Rick not only abandons his negative behavior pattern, he also begins the process of overturning the rules of the normal world. The change is suggested by Renault’s becoming, as it were, Rick’s first convert. They leave together to join up with a mysterious free French garrison at Brazzaville.
Rick’s character arc is not an isolated device but a central organizing principle of the plot. The same process is at work in The Apartment.
The Apartment: A normal world?
The Apartment tells the story of an ordinary accountant, C. C. Baxter, played by Jack Lemmon. In a calculated attempt to gain a promotion, Baxter allows his bosses to use his apartment for their extramarital affairs. Baxter is also smitten with an “elevator girl,” Fran Kubelik, played by Shirley MacLaine. But unbeknownst to Baxter, at least during the first half of the film, Fran is having an affair with the big boss, Mr. Sheldrake, played by Fred McMurray. Sheldrake is only stringing Fran along, though, and because of his treatment of her she eventually attempts suicide. Baxter finds her just in time and with the help of his neighbor, Dr. Dreyfuss, saves Fran’s life.
Baxter becomes Fran’s caregiver, but also Mr. Sheldrake’s protector, ensuring that news of Fran’s suicide attempt does not leak out. In the end, however, Baxter learns the error of his ways and finally follows the advice he is given by Dr. Dreyfuss.
When Baxter does become a mensch, he succeeds in winning Fran’s heart.
The six-step strategy displayed in Casablanca is launched in the opening few minutes of The Apartment.
We learn a great deal from this opening sequence. We learn that Baxter has a problem with his apartment and we learn that Mr. Kirkeby, the boss using his apartment, doesn’t respect him. The boss’s disdain helps garner sympathy for Baxter. Yes, Baxter is ill-advisedly allowing his bosses to use his apartment, but his bosses take advantage of the situation and mistreat him.
So why does Baxter let his bosses push him around? He wants a promotion, but why must he be so obsequious to get it? Is he unworthy? No. As we see right away, he is a hard worker.
In the opening voiceover we learn that Baxter is smart, or at least good with numbers, that he is enthusiastic about his work as an accountant, and that he respects and is impressed with the company he works for. He is a diligent company man, both capable and earnest. So why is he such a pushover?
To answer that question we need to look at the normal world. The film almost immediately introduces us to Consolidated Life, the insurance company Baxter works for. It is a beehive, an impersonal and monotonous corporate colony. And Baxter is depicted as an anonymous drone: he works on the 19th floor, Section W, at desk #861.
Baxter is not just a cog in a machine; he also behaves like a machine when we see his head bob up and down in unison with his calculator. If at the end of the film Baxter becomes a mensch, a human being, then at the beginning of the film he is an automaton. He does what he is told. That is part of being a company man.
Fran, who functions as co-protagonist, works inside a machine. Her gray uniform blends into her surroundings.
Fran and Baxter are insignificant, powerless and anonymous people lost among the 8,042,783 New Yorkers. In The Apartment status, power, money and the freedom to do what you want, other people be damned, are the highest values people can aspire to. And those without status, power and money are nobodies. That is how the normal world works in The Apartment.
The only way to escape anonymity and insignificance is to climb the ladder of corporate and/or social success, and presumably become one of the exploiters. This is exactly what Baxter and Fran try to do. Baxter, after all, wants to be a big boss like the men he lets use his apartment. His gamesmanship eventually allows him to jump the promotion line. His co-worker has been at Consolidated Life twice as long as Baxter, but because he does not play the game, he is not promoted.
Fran wants a promotion too: from mistress to wife of a very powerful man. She becomes to some degree complicit with Sheldrake in disregarding the needs of his wife.
Both Baxter and Fran, then, are willing to climb over other people to get what they want. Still, they aren’t vicious. In most ways, Fran is a kind and encouraging person. When Baxter comes up for his first promotion she tells him, “It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.” And Fran actually loves Sheldrake. Fran is not Sylvia, a woman we meet in the opening sequence, who seems mostly interested in having a good time.
Just as Fran is not like Sylvia, Baxter is not like his bosses. For one thing, he apologizes to his neighbors for all the noise his bosses make during their trysts. He even tries to correct the situation. And unlike Sheldrake and Kirkeby, Baxter does not want to simply seduce Fran.
Baxter is naïve, a romantic, a rank sentimentalist. And his chances for success in this world, like Fran’s, are limited.
In sum, Baxter and Fran are of two minds. They exhibit both a positive behavior pattern and a negative behavior pattern. This is very important. Because they both basically have good intentions—or aren’t cynical enough for the world they inhabit—they can grow as characters.
But given their good intentions, why do Fran and Baxter have negative behavior patterns? The answer is that each harbors a false belief (related to the normal world) that motivates their negative behavior pattern. Fran’s false belief is that Sheldrake loves her. And because of this she continually trusts him. Here she is going off in a cab to sleep with him, even though we know that Sheldrake hardly cares about her.
In parallel fashion, Baxter believes that corporate success will bring him happiness, but in the end it doesn’t. He gets his big fat promotion with his own office, and he’s miserable.
Still, as long as Baxter harbors the illusion that climbing the corporate ladder will make him happy, he is willing to kiss up to his bosses and allow them to push him around as a way to get ahead. That is Baxter’s negative behavior pattern: he is a toady.
The Apartment: Delay and the darkest moment
Sustaining a character’s positive and negative behavior patterns often becomes of central importance in a film’s second half, when what Kristin calls the Development is launched. In some films the protagonist actually has enough information by this point to reconsider the false belief, but that doesn’t happen. The protagonist clings to error.
The midpoint of The Apartment is the moment roughly an hour into the film when Baxter discovers Fran comatose in his bed. As Kristin points out, a midpoint typically recasts character goals, and Baxter gains a new purpose: saving Fran.
Baxter is worried that Fran will try again to kill herself, so a lot of the Development focuses on his attempts to keep her safe. But Baxter is also protecting Sheldrake during this section of the film. He induces the doctor not to report Fran’s suicide attempt to the police, and he hides Fran in his apartment until she’s better. Baxter’s competing motives, in other words, remain in play. Helping to save Fran’s life, and learning that there is a terrible cost to Sheldrake’s callous behavior should be enough to motivate Baxter to turn against Sheldrake. But he remains on the job.
We see something similar happen about twenty minutes into the Development, when Baxter phones Sheldrake to tell him about the suicide attempt. Sheldrake won’t even come to visit Fran. Baxter is confused and disappointed by this response, but he nonetheless promises his continued support.
This is a common strategy during a Development section. The flawed protagonist is one or more times brought to the brink of character change, but he or she pulls back, clinging to the negative behavior pattern. We see exactly this withdrawal in Casablanca. At the midpoint in that film Ilsa visits Rick and tries to tell him about her relationship with Victor. Rick has an opportunity here to accept the truth, which would set him free, but he rejects it. He clings to his false belief that Ilsa betrayed him and Paris.
Rick is given a second chance roughly halfway through the development when he allows the young couple to win at roulette. Rick’s employee, Karl, is watching from the sidelines, and he is thrilled. He believes that Rick is turning over a new leaf, and so do we. But immediately following this event Victor directly asks Rick for the letters of transit, and Rick bitterly says no.
These are of course delaying tactics, and ones we should expect. Kristin points out that the Development section usually contains numerous delays that create rising tension and suspense, while forestalling resolution.
In The Apartment‘s Development section, certainly Fran’s change of heart is delayed. Despite being driven to attempt suicide by Sheldrake’s treatment of her, she nonetheless announces the next day that she’s still in love with him. She even reaffirms her false belief.
Fran’s near-death experience should be enough to convince her that she needs to end her relationship with Sheldrake, but she too clings to her false belief and negative behavior pattern. Still, in spite of all this, it would be a mistake to say that no progress is being made. Baxter after all is horrified by what Fran has done to herself and Fran is beginning to entertain doubts. She says that “maybe” Sheldrake loves her. And all of this culminates in a moment of self-knowledge:
They are, in short, changing. Also, the possibility of a romantic relationship is finally introduced when Baxter and Fran prepare to sit down to a candlelit dinner together.
With these new story premises in place, the stage is set for Baxter and Fran’s final changes of heart in the climax. But not before a few more delaying tactics are deployed.
First, Fran’s brother-in-law Karl arrives and breaks up Fran and Baxter’s dinner plans. Then Baxter visits Sheldrake to tell him that he is in love with Fran and intends to marry her. But Sheldrake beats him to the punch. His wife has found out about his philandering and kicked him out of the house. Now Sheldrake plans to marry Fran. But to thank Baxter for taking care of business, Sheldrake gives him his big promotion.
As we’ve seen, corporate success is no longer what Baxter wants. In current screenwriter parlance, this is his darkest moment. It’s immediately followed by this exchange:
Fran is clearly ambivalent about her impending marriage to Sheldrake, and Baxter is clearly acting out, trying to hurt Fran. Also, Fran is deeply disturbed to see the cynical side of Baxter out in full force. And this brings me finally to the possible world. As we also saw in Casablanca, the story world in The Apartment is divided, and again the question is who will the protagonist become. Will Baxter grow up to be Dr. Dreyfuss, who represents a communal worldview, or will he grow up to be Mr. Sheldrake, who represents a selfish worldview?
Now it seems that Baxter has become Sheldrake–except we don’t, or aren’t supposed to, believe him. The real point of the exchange between Baxter and Fran is that Baxter no longer holds his false belief. He is using it now only as a defense mechanism, as a cudgel to punish the woman he sees as having betrayed him. He is, in short, pretending. And since he is no longer committed to his false belief he can change.
As has become typical in Hollywood films, the protagonist’s darkest moment leads to enlightenment. In the very next scene Sheldrake asks Baxter for the key to his apartment so that he can bring Fran there for New Year’s Eve, and Baxter says no. When Sheldrake threatens to fire him, Baxter angrily throws a key onto Sheldrake’s desk, and the quiet confrontation ensues.
Baxter thought that the way the stand out was to play along, but in the end he discovers that the way to stand out is to stand alone and cease to be a collaborator. Also, Baxter’s transformation, like Rick’s in Casablanca, inspires a conversion in another character, Fran, and in this way it suggests an overturning of the rules of the normal world. As we’ve already seen, Fran is ambivalent about her new relationship with Sheldrake. And when Sheldrake at a New Year’s Eve party tells Fran that Baxter quit and wouldn’t give him the key, she smiles mysteriously as if finally seeing the light.
She realizes it is Baxter who loves her and not Sheldrake. So she abandons her false belief and the negative behavior pattern it engenders. She leaves Sheldrake and rushes to meet Baxter. And that’s the end of the story.
Two men of two minds
Finally, how enduring are these character-arc patterns? Consider, briefly, Jaws and About a Boy.
Chief Brody is a former New York City police office who has become sheriff of a small island community, Amity. Why did he leave the city? Because, as he explains, crime in New York is out of control and he couldn’t do anything to change that. So he has come to Amity, a world in which, he thinks, one person can make a difference.
Yet for this cop, living in Amity is a cop-out. There hasn’t been a murder there for thirty years. It is a town where one person doesn’t have to make a difference. Yet when the shark arrives, Brody discovers that Amity is the same as New York City. He wants to close the beaches, but the city officials won’t let him. He crumbles under their pressure. Brody is as powerless to make a difference in Amity as he was in New York.
That is how the normal world works in Jaws, and Brody, like Baxter, initially conforms to it. At the beginning of his story he’s defeatist. He always backs down in the face of conflict. He is not confident. Later, on Quint’s boat he wants to turn back. He’s always feeling overwhelmed, a state expressed in his fear of drowning. So Brody goes along to get along.
Accepting his powerlessness is Brody’s negative behavior pattern. But like Baxter and Rick, he can’t help caring. He works to close the beaches, if only for a day, and after a young boy gets killed, he accepts the blame.
Brody exhibits the typical split between positive and negative behavior. Yet because he’s of two minds, he can change. In a crucial turning point, he vows to join Quint and Hooper in hunting the shark. At the climax, he doesn’t back down. He is fearless and he does make a difference. He helps save the town, and in the process he gets over his fear of drowning.
About a Boy, a British-American-French coproduction, released domestically by Universal Pictures, suggests that the techniques I’ve been considering have some cross-border appeal. A 38-year old man-boy, Will Freeman, played by Hugh Grant, lives in luxurious isolation off the royalties from a popular Christmas song his father composed decades before.
Neatly reversing John Donne’s dictum, Will asserts in the opening moments that “all men are islands.” In accordance with this philosophy he has built for himself “a little island paradise,” a swanky apartment filled with cool consumer goods like a chrome-plated espresso maker, a sleek TV, and a vast CD collection. But then Will meets and ultimately befriends Marcus (Nicholas Hoult), a 12-year old misfit with a suicidal mother, who lives his own willed exile because of not being accepted at school.
The story deals with how Will and Marcus and Marcus’s mother Fiona (Toni Collette) become integrated into the world.
Will and Marcus are co-protagonists, but Will’s character arc is more pronounced. Will’s false belief, of course, is that he can make it alone. The problem, though, is that solitude leaves his life devoid of meaning. He has no job and he sleeps with many women but doesn’t date any of them, at least not for very long. As he several times states, “I don’t do anything,” or more to the point, “I do nothing.” Will, however, sees this lack of meaning as a positive: “Me? I didn’t mean anything, about anything, to anyone, and I knew that that guaranteed me a long, depression-free life.”
Will’s false belief is not simply that he thinks he can make it on his own; he believes he can avoid misery by avoiding commitments. This is most apparent when Marcus’s mother attempts suicide.
While Will helps out by driving Marcus to the hospital, the sequence ends with a grim bit of voiceover as we see Will drive off alone into the night.
The thing is, a person’s life is like a TV show. I was the star of the Will show, and the Will show wasn’t an ensemble drama. Guests came and went, but I was the regular. It came down to me and me alone. If Marcus’s mom couldn’t manage her own show, if her ratings were falling, it was sad, but that was her problem.
Will, however, is of two minds, a state the film expresses in a number ways. First, despite being a committed loner, he very early in the plot begins dating a single mother. As we see him gleefully playing with this woman’s young son, he says in voiceover: “And for the next few weeks I was suddenly Will the good guy.”
When Will decides to break up with this woman, in part because she made him late to an IMAX movie, he adds, “I was going to have to end it, but having been Will the good guy I did not relish going back to my usual role of Will the unreliable, emotionally stunted asshole.” He is, apparently, self-aware, and his use of the word “role” seems intentional, suggesting as it does that Will the Asshole is a persona he adopts to avoid complications. We also learn that in the past Will volunteered at a soup kitchen, though he admits he never made it there to help out. And we discover that for a time he worked the phones at Amnesty International, but seems to have mostly used this as an opportunity to pick up women on his call lists.
The point the filmmakers are comically making is that Will has good impulses, but is unable to sustain them in the long term. He has both a positive behavior pattern and a negative behavior pattern, the latter very clearly motivated by his false belief.
The normal world is established as one in which people are abandoned. The film is full of single moms, including Marcus’s mother, and Will tries to abandon everyone he meets. In the opening scene he throws away the phone number of a woman he has slept with, even as she is leaving an inviting message on his answering machine.
Most significantly, Fiona almost abandons Marcus when she attempts suicide. In the wake of this, Marcus is worried that his mother will try again, and that she may succeed when he’s not there. He gets an idea: “Suddenly I realized that two weren’t enough. You needed backup.” With this realization Marcus defines the possible world for us. It is one that is comprised of teamwork and mutual support. In search of this new world, Marcus attempts to fix up Will with his mother. His goal is to get Will to marry her so that they can both look after her.
The dreamed-of marriage never occurs, but Marcus and Will slowly become friends, spending most afternoons together watching TV and sometimes talking. Will helps Marcus become more cool, which allows him to begin making friends at school.
Because of his growing friendship with Marcus, Will comes to realize that misery stems from loneliness, not commitment. He abandons his false belief and the negative behavior pattern it motivates. Not only does he fall in love, but for Marcus’s sake he also offers his friendship and emotional support to Fiona to help prevent her from attempting suicide again. In this way he demonstrates that he has learned the necessity of real, meaningful relationships. The film ends with all the main characters together in Will’s apartment–once his desert island paradise–sharing Christmas lunch. There is even a hint that Fiona too will find love. This ending marks a clear overturning of the rules of the normal world.
Two Minds, Positive and Negative Behaviors, False Belief, Normal vs. Possible Worlds: Maybe all character arcs don’t follow these principles. We’ll have to test them against many more movies. At least, though, they seem to offer widespread, enduring strategies for constructing character change.
In every case I’ve considered, the protagonist discovers his or her “true” self, the good or well-adjusted person that has been lurking within all along. Which suggests that radical, 180-degreee character change is rare–most likely because it is difficult to motivate. Arguably, though, Breaking Bad pulled off a version of it. And speaking of Walter White, it remains to be studied how character change is typically handled in long-form television, which is becoming an ever more significant mode of Hollywood storytelling.
For more on principles of Hollywood plotting, see the entry “Open Secrets of Classical Storytelling,” “Understanding Film Narrative: The Trailer,” and “Time Goes by Turns.” Some ideas about character change are set out in “Three Dimensions of Film Narrative.” There’s a bit on The Apartment as a 1960 film here.
About a Boy (2002).
Kristin and I are one-third through our New York stay, and blogging has suffered. There have been talks to give, old friends to visit, new friends to meet, and movies and exhibitions to see. And there’ll be more activities of these sorts to come. But I can’t let 6 May pass without some acknowledgment of Orson Welles.
That’s partly because I just finished a draft of the Welles section of my 40s Hollywood manuscript. (Yeah, that beast was another distraction from blogging. All 158,000 rough-hewn words of it are now dispatched to some unwary readers.) So Welles was on my mind already when the anniversary of the “official” Citizen Kane release came up on 1 May.
Actually, by the time Kane had that roadshow release, it had been widely seen by the Hollywood community. In the face of the Hearst press’s attacks, RKO head George Schaefer held invitational screenings in early 1941 to build up support for the film. Variety estimated that by late March 1,200 producers, directors, writers, actors, and agents had seen the picture. The number was so big that RKO dispensed with a splashy Hollywood opening. (The article title is pure Varietyese: “So Many Cuffo Gloms at ‘Kane’ It Kayoes Idea of a $5.50 Preem,” Variety, 2 April 1941, 2, 20.) As a result, I think, Kane‘s influence began to be registered some months before its New York premiere, as the look of The Maltese Falcon (shot June and July of 1941) might suggest.
What I offer today, on the Boy Wonder’s birthday, is a consideration of that movie from an unusual angle looking not just at its originality but also at its shrewd consolidation of a variety of techniques.
We’re so used to considering Kane powerfully original that it’s worth remembering that it synthesizes a lot of traditions. I’m not thinking of Pauline Kael’s claim that it’s a culmination of the 1930s newspaper genre; as so often, she fails to persuade me. I’m thinking instead of the look and sound of the movie, as well as its storytelling strategies.
Depth staging and deep-focus cinematography are two techniques not always kept distinct in critical discussion. 1930s Jean Renoir films have plenty of depth staging but usually not so much deep focus. Citizen Kane won attention partly because it has plenty of both, and in exaggerated form. The figures often stretch very far back, someone or something is often rather close to the camera, and often all of them are sharply focused.
Without taking anything away from the boldness of Welles and cinematographer Gregg Toland, we should recognize that they reworked visual patterns—what I’ll call schemas—that were already circulating in filmmaking. Framings with big foregrounds, distant planes, and low angles weren’t unknown in silent films (Opium, 1919; Greed, 1925; , 1928) and some early talkies (No Other Woman, 1933).
There was a sort of fad for such deep staging, especially with wide-angle lenses, during the late 1930s, though all the planes weren’t usually kept in focus. Some directors, such as John Ford (here and here) and William Wyler, favored deep images, while art director William Cameron Menzies (see here and here) made them part of his artistic signature. Below: Ford’s Long Voyage Home (1940), shot by Toland, and Menzies’ Our Town (1940), directed by Sam Wood.
It’s now acknowledged that many of Kane’s deepest shots weren’t actually made in the camera, but by means of special effects, particularly matte shots. Interestingly, this too wasn’t utterly original; compare the composite shot from Kane with the one from Mr. Moto’s Gamble (1935), which has an even more aggressive foreground.
Welles and Toland called attention to these techniques by a radical gesture: many of these deep shots are long takes from a fixed camera position. Most filmmakers who used these depth schemas inserted them into passages of orthodox scene dissection. The depth shots might establish a locale, or they might be inserted into a series of analytical cuts, or they might be part of a shot/ reverse shot pattern. But in Kane you’re forced to notice the Baroque plunge of space because the lengthy take rubs your nose in the flashy composition.
It’s clear that Kane crystallized a certain look that was picked up by John Huston, Anthony Mann with or without his DP John Alton, and many other directors. The Welles/Toland version of depth consolidated a visual style that dominated American black-and-white filmmaking into the 1960s. Typically, though, filmmakers didn’t rely on the fixed long take as much as Welles did in Kane. Even Welles gave up that option in favor of dynamic editing of deep-focus shots, as in The Lady from Shanghai (1948) and Othello (1952/1955).
Not everything is long takes and depth. The pictorial variety of the film is, I think, unprecedented. The “News on the March” sequence becomes a virtuoso exercise in all the techniques that the rest of the film won’t be using. For perhaps the first time in history, Welles artificially distresses his staged scenes to make them match archival footage. He adds scratches and light flares.
This newsreel is so film-savvy that it can build in jump cuts and fast-motion as guarantors of fake authenticity. One passage mimics two-camera reportage, allowing us to imagine paparazzi crouched and perched at a fence to grab clandestine shots of an elderly Kane.
Here the schemas that are borrowed come from archival and documentary traditions, repurposed to add realism to this fictional biography. Welles, as we’ve seen in the Great Ambersons Poster Mystery (here and here and here), was a smart-alec cinephile: your disobedient servant.
What about sound? Back in 1994, Rick Altman wrote a pioneering article showing how Kane manipulates our sense of auditory space, and he connected that to Welles’ use of radio conventions. Contrary to what we might expect, Welles’s soundtrack doesn’t create much “deep-focus sound”; Altman shows that our impression of that is created chiefly by an overall reverberation rather than precise placement of sonic events. Altman also stresses Welles’ use of sudden, loud sound events to start or end a scene–another radio technique.
Today we’re lucky to have a great many of Welles’ radio programs available on the Web, and we can appreciate how his rich soundscapes mingle noises, dialogue, and voice-over narration. These shows remain very gripping. Listening to Kane in the same spirit, I’ve been impressed with how talky it is, how sounds crash in on you, and how even bursts of silence can be startling. Welles told one biographer that he aimed to create spiky transitions, both visual and sonic, because he thought most films of the period were dull.
He had already made his stage reputation on “shock effects,” those stunning high points in particular productions: the death of Macbeth in the Harlem production (1936), an actor’s headfirst tumble into the orchestra pit in Horse Eats Hat (1936), the mob’s murder of Cinna the Poet in Caesar (1937), the guillotine scenes in Danton’s Death (1938), and police agents firing from the audience in Native Son (1941). He became known as a director of thrilling moments, ever willing to sacrifice steady buildup to anything that would astonish. Forties theatre critics had a name for it: “Wellesapoppin’.” That quality dominates Kane’s images and sounds.
Remembering, recounting, replays
Otto Hullet, Barbara O’Neill, and Orson Welles in Sidney Kingsley’s Ten Million Ghosts (1936).
Just as Kane amplifies visual and auditory schemas already in circulation, the film does somewhat the same thing to narrative strategies. The key innovation here involves flashbacks and point of view.
Flashbacks were rare in the 1930s, but the early 1940s began a flashback craze that continued throughout the decade. Between August 1940 and December 1941, every top studio tried out flashbacks in a major release: The Great McGinty (Paramount), Kitty Foyle (RKO), I Wake Up Screaming (Fox), H. M. Pulham, Esq. (MGM), and Strawberry Blonde (Warners). A reviewer claimed that the “retrospective viewpoint” technique in A Woman’s Face, released the same month as Kane, “had of late become commonplace.” By September 1941 the Los Angeles Times critic considered the technique overused.
Even though the trend was already launched, Kane probably strengthened Hollywood’s inclination toward time-shifting. Again, it crystallizes in an influential way possibilities opened up in film, radio, theatre, and other media.
Kane’s central premise—a dead man recalled by one or more survivors—had been rehearsed in earlier films. The Power and the Glory (1933), scripted by Preston Sturges, was probably the most noted experiment in that vein. (For more, see this long-ago entry.) Another example was The Life of Vergie Winters (1934), which begins with a funeral procession and flashes back to the start of a backstreet love affair. (See this entry.) The Escape (1939) centers on a doctor who tells a crime reporter about a recently deceased neighborhood gangster, and flashbacks enact his tale.
These earlier examples stick to a single teller, while Kane offers reports on its dead man from five characters. Here again, however, there are precedents. In fiction and drama, trials have long served as motivation for flashbacks from multiple viewpoints. A major example, perhaps the first, is Robert Browning’s verse novel The Ring and the Book (1868-1869). Multiple tellers recounting events in flashback were staples of Hollywood courtroom dramas too. Beyond the trial-based format, Welles’ radio programs had welcomed multiple storytellers, sometimes embedding them within one another’s tales, sometimes letting them banter with each other.
Kane assembles views on a person rather than evidence of a crime, but even this is not completely unknown. Some playwrights had tried out what Kane screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz had called the “prismatic” approach to an absent central character. Sophie Treadwell’s play Eye of the Beholder (1919) portrays an offstage woman as seen through the eyes of her former husband, her lover, her lover’s mother, and her own mother. The play These Few Ashes (1928) presents the life of a (supposedly) dead roué through the recollections of three women, each of whom sees him quite differently.
Then there’s reporter Thompson’s investigation. The Power and the Glory’s exhumation of the tycoon’s past is presented simply as his old friend’s recounting; it’s not the investigation of a mystery. Kane innovated in the biographical film genre by creating curiosity based on the dying man’s last word, “Rosebud.” That device shifts us to the terrain of the detective story. The dying message had become a mystery-tale convention from Conan Doyle onward, and Welles and Mankiewicz shrewdly recruited it for their purposes (although it’s not clear exactly who hears Kane say the crucial word).
In blending conventions of several genres, Kane motivates the flashbacks on diverse grounds. The film’s detective-story side is anticipated by The Phantom of Crestwood and Affairs of a Gentleman (1934); in both, flashbacks represent the suspects’ answers under questioning. Like The Escape, Kane uses a reporter’s search for a story to justify its flashbacks, and the reporter isn’t the protagonist (as he’d be in a typical newsman movie). And being something of a biopic, Welles’s film can trace the rise of a great man from the vantage point of old age, as in Edison, the Man (1940). By the way, that’s another film of the era using a journalist’s questioning to launch flashbacks to a person’s life.
Another wrinkle: Kane’s flashback organization skips around in the past. Episodes of Kane’s life are not presented in 1-2-3 order. Plays set in courtrooms, such as Elmer Rice’s On Trial (1914), had rendered flashbacks out of sequential order, and so had radio dramas. Welles’ 1938 radio adaptation of Dracula shuffles episodes in the manner of the source novel. Non-chronological strings of flashbacks weren’t common in film, but The Trial of Vivienne Ware (1932) and The Power and the Glory used them significantly.
Even rarer is the replayed flashback, the scene from earlier in the film that is repeated, usually to reveal something we hadn’t caught on the first pass. Kane has occasion to present a brief replay from differing character viewpoints. Susan’s opera premiere is first treated curtly, as the object of the stagehands’ scorn. Later, in her flashback, the same scene registers the central characters’ reactions: a severe Kane, a bored Leland, the harried singing master, and above all the panicked Susan.
Replay flashbacks were rare in the 1930s, but The Witness Chair (1936) provides one example. After Kane, they would become more common, with Mildred Pierce (1945) offering one of the period’s most complex examples. (I discuss it here and here, with a video here.)
Even the coup de théâtre of following Kane’s death with a newsreel can be seen as revising a schema. “News on the March” isn’t exactly a flashback, but it provides exposition by shuttling among time periods in a manner characteristic of the film to come. Projected headlines and documentary footage, faked or actual, had found their way into 1930s theatre practice, notably in the WPA Living Newspaper productions. Many 1930s films opened with montage sequences using headlines, stock footage, and voice-overs like those in newsreels; The Roaring Twenties (1939) is a bold example. Gabriel over the White House (1933), with its mix of library footage and staged shots, anticipates Kane somewhat, as does Welles’ script for an uncompleted 1939 RKO project, The Smiler with a Knife, which includes a newsreel surveying the career of the fascist villain.
Another, less proximate source may be Sidney Kingsley’s 1936 Broadway play Ten Million Ghosts. This strident antiwar tract lasted only eleven performances and was never published; I took a look at a copy of the script last week. In the original production Welles played the naïve young poet André in love with the daughter of a munitions magnate during World War I.
Ten Million Ghosts includes a scene in which arms makers spend an evening watching a battlefront newsreel in their parlor. Kingsley’s purpose is to show the capitalists as utterly indifferent to the slaughter that the camera records.
They watch in silence for a while. Then there are technical comments on the explosives, shells, etc. as we see them hurl geysers of earth and men into the sky.
Was this embedded newsreel an early source for News on the March? Scholars have wondered. And there’s more.
As the film unwinds, André, who has learned that his family has been killed in the war, cries out in protest. Madeleine is torn between him and her father. To win her over her father angrily defends his double-dealing between both sides in the war. It’s all just business, he insists. Then we get this piece of action:
De Kruif rises, intercepting the beam of the projecting machine, his face highly lighted, his shadow, black and ominously magnified, thrown on the screen superimposed over the pictures of men writhing in bloody destruction.
Was De Kruif’s moment in the play a visual idea that inspired Kane’s projection-room scene? If so, Welles and Toland revised the premise of the play. Instead of the rather obvious looming shadow cast on the screen, the story editor is a silhouette against the blank white rectangle, and then, in a reversed setup, he becomes another silhouette, this time splitting the projector beam.
Welles told Peter Bogdanovich that he never saw the projection scene in Kingsley’s play because he was always back in his dressing room at that point. But as Pat McGilligan points out in his new biography Young Orson, Welles could hardly have been unaware of the film-within-the-play; many critics commented on it. More decisively, in the playscript, André is clearly onstage during the screening. He cries out against the carnage: “Look, look! Those are only pictures. . . Out there it’s real. . .” Peter Noble’s 1956 biography The Fabulous Orson Welles quotes Welles as declaring that this scene left a strong impression on him.
It’s not enough just to mention some sources. If you practice historically-slanted criticism, you need to ask not only “Where from?” but “What for?” In other words, you have to ask how elements that a filmmaker inherits get repurposed for the particular movie.
So, for instance, Kane’s depth-designed images held in long takes allow a more “theatrical” shift of attention within a visual field (driven largely by following who’s speaking). They also create contrasts of scale and visual weight. And each scene will have its specific demands that the depth technique fulfills. A depth shot can present cause and effect in the same frame, and it can build suspense by letting us await Kane’s interference in a foreground situation.
Similarly, Kane’s narrative strategies, synthesizing so many earlier efforts, blend to create a mystery that isn’t about whodunit but rather “why’d he do it?”
I’m not exactly saying that everything is a mashup. But that slogan does capture the fact that in art nothing comes from nothing. Kane blends several options that had been circulating in popular culture and high culture for some years. Like others before and since, Welles revised schemas tried out earlier; he combined some, exaggerated some, and infused many of them with new force. Because of his film’s prestige, he gave thrusting imagery, bold sonic manipulations, and complicated time shifts a new prominence in Hollywood filmmaking. The Forties had begun.
There are a several essential Welles sources. Apart from the many fine critical studies (see especially Jim Naremore’s Magic World of Orson Welles and Joe McBride’s What Ever Happened to Orson Welles?), the biographical surveys I habitually turn to are Welles and Peter Bogdanovich, This Is Orson Welles (Da Capo rev. ed., 1998), with a painstaking chronology by Jonathan Rosenbaum; the three-volume Simon Callow biography; Bret Wood’s Orson Welles: A Bio-Bibliography (Greenwood, 1990); Barbara Leaming’s Orson Welles: A Biography (Viking, 1985; my reference to shock effects is from p. 338); Frank Brady’s Citizen Welles (Scribners, 1990); and most recently Pat McGilligan, Young Orson: The Years of Luck and Genius on the Path to Citizen Kane (Harper, 2015). Pat’s discussion of Ten Million Ghosts is on pp. 366-367; Welles’ misremembering of the production is on p. 78 of This Is Orson Welles. A typescript of Kingsley’s play is held in the New York Public Library, at the Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts.
Rick Altman’s study is “Deep-Focus Sound: Citizen Kane and the Radio Aesthetic,” Quarterly Review of Film & Video 15, 3 (1994): 1-33. If it’s available without cost online, I haven’t found it. The programs “Dracula” (1938), “The Hurricane” (1939), and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (1940) provide vivid examples of multiple narrators and embedded flashbacks. For a comprehensive account of Welles’ radio work, see Paul Heyer, The Medium and the Magician: Orson Welles, the Radio Years 1935-1952 (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005). As for prismatic flashbacks, in the mid-1930s, Mankiewicz had built the plot of an unfinished play around the memories of people who had known John Dillinger. See Richard Meryman, Mank: The Wit, World, and Life of Herman Mankiewicz (New York: Morrow, 1978), 247, 258.
On Kane‘s visual style and its place in film history, see my accounts in The Classical Hollywood Cinema (1985) and On the History of Film Style (1997), as well as on this site (here and here especially). A detailed analysis of Kane‘s narrative strategies is in Chapter Three of Film Art: An Introduction, 11 ed., (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2016). The distinction between depth staging and deep cinematography is explored in Chapters Four and Five.
Continuity editing was one of the great collective inventions of filmmakers. In the ten years after it crystallized in Hollywood around 1917, it was adopted around the world. The technique has hung on a surprisingly long time, rather like geometrical perspective in pictorial art. It’s so powerful that it’s hard to escape.
It’s powerful partly because it’s adaptable to a lot of narrative situations. It provides filmmakers what we can call a set of stylistic schemas, or routine patterns, that can be adjusted in various ways. Analytical cuts that take us into or back from the action, shot/reverse shots and eyeline matches, over-the-shoulder framings (OTS), and slight camera movements that set up reestablishing shots: these straightforward schemas can be used in an indefinitely large number of ways.
I‘ve been noticing this flexibility while writing (still!) my book on narrative strategies in 1940s Hollywood. In particular, I was looking at fantasy tales and the peculiar problems they pose for filmmakers. First, how do we represent ghosts, angels, and other visitors from the Afterlife? And how do we make sure that audiences understand that what we see isn’t necessarily what some of the characters onscreen are seeing?
Our Town (1940).
On the first problem: Today we have CGI resources that allow Afterlifers to move freely among the living characters. These effects were much harder to achieve back then. The supernatural-fantasy genre developed its own conventions (yep, schemas). Most films resorted to presenting the Afterlifer in double exposure.
But superimposed characters can’t move easily among the clutter of furniture in a set. A supered ghost can’t go behind a sofa; the sofa will always be visible through it. You might resort to a traveling matte shot, as William Cameron Menzies did in Our Town (1940), when Emily revisits her family after her death. The shot (just above) is particularly flashy because the younger Emily is also in it.
Or you could pull off the remarkable trick in Earthbound (1940). Here a ghostly Warner Baxter settles comfortably into the middle ground and strides around behind furniture and other actors.
He can even give up his seat to an old lady and shift to another.
These effects were achieved by a technical feat that I don’t fully understand. (See the codicil.) But the trick wasn’t widely adopted, and most filmmakers opted for a simple expedient. Typically the Afterlifer shows up as a superimposition, but he or she gradually materializes and becomes a solid presence like all the other actors. This is from The Canterville Ghost (1945).
Then comes the second problem. Sometimes the living can see the spectre, but sometimes not. In Here Comes Mr. Jordan, the angel Jordan and Joe the prizefighter arrive from the Beyond and watch the murderous couple from behind. They aren’t visible to the living, but they’re just as tangible.
If a living character seems oblivious to the otherworldly guest, we’re to assume that the guest is invisible. Each film has to inform us of who can see what, and most films do—redundantly. The spook or divine messenger will explain that the living can’t see them, or that only certain characters can. (Sometimes children and animals can see them while grownup humans can’t.)
These conventions can get tweaked. Once we know the Afterlifers aren’t visible to the living, they can comment on the action from the sidelines, as when the dead pilot in A Guy Named Joe (1944) slips in wisecracks while his girlfriend is wooed by a young aviator. In the comic The Man in the Trunk (1942), an all-too-tangible ghost can’t follow a character leaving a room. He explains, “I failed my examination on how to walk through walls.” In The Remarkable Andrew (1941), the ghosts of US founding fathers can ransack offices for evidence in an utterly unconstitutional search and seizure. Most ghosts can pick up objects, but the ones in The Cockeyed Miracle (1946) can’t, a fact redundantly explained to us. This generates suspense when they try to grab a fallen bank check. (Incidentally, this is a long, skillfully directed scene, and it does have recourse to a matte shot when one ghost tries. unsuccessfully, to hide the check by standing on it.)
All of these tweaks rely on continuity editing. But in the course of the 1940s, I’ve noticed, filmmakers played a little more ambitiously with the Afterlife conventions, and continuity style allowed them to do it. The results are sometimes provocative.
Ghosts coming and going
Consider the arrival/departure of the Afterlifer. The default is the special-effects twinkling that lets him or her materialize into the scene and fade out of it. But some filmmakers tried more natural options. In Alias Nick Beale, the title character, aka Satan, strolls in from offscreen, or, thanks to John Cromwell’s staging, is masked by other players before being revealed on the scene. He’s presented to all the characters as a real person, but the staging gives him arrivals of relaxed abruptness.
Joseph Mankiewicz’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) finds other ways to avoid the hugger-mugger of transparency and melting departures. Captain Gregg assures Mrs. Muir that to her he is “like a blasted lantern slide,” but for us he just steps into the frame and stays on as a solid presence. He disappears just as simply: Mrs. Muir turns away, then a new shot shows that Gregg has gone. Good old shot/reverse shot does the trick.
It’s neat that the second reverse shot on Mrs. Muir reaffirms Gregg’s absence by making her seem more isolated than the earlier mid-shot does. This cut-back to show her isolation after his departure is stressed even more in a later scene, when a medium shot shows her turned slightly away from him; in that interval, he disappears again.
Only after the captain has decided to leave her forever does he resort to the standard spook trick of dissolving away. But in this melancholy context, the familiar device takes on a forbidding finality. He leaves her sleeping and has magically made her forget all about their year together.
In the epilogue, when the elderly Mrs. Muir dies, the captain returns, sturdy as ever, and again the film avoids the cliché. The default schema is to let the dead person’s spirit float up in superimposition from the corpse. Instead, Mankiewicz presents Gregg standing over the lady in a tight shot and simply lifting the now eternally young Mrs. Muir into the frame. Again, all we need is shot/reverse shot, this time with the extra intimacy of an OTS.
These uncommon options take us a little by surprise, refreshing the genre conventions, while also suggesting that the films drive a little deeper into the heart than the usual spook story. The simplicity of presentation helps us take their spectral affair more seriously.
In The Bishop’s Wife (1947) the angel Dudley, like Gregg, comes and goes via offscreen space. A pan follows Henry the bishop, who hears a noise outside his study. The shot pays off with a reverse-angle cut to Dudley, now magically present at the fireplace where Henry was.
At other points, as in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, the framing excludes Dudley, and when we cut to the long shot Dudley is gone.
Soon, though, there’s a gag on the device. Henry, furious with Dudley, turns away and prays that Dudley will leave him. As earlier, the camera tracks in.
At first it seems that the prayer has been answered, when the camera tracks back from Henry and we see his slightly surprised expression, implying that Dudley has vanished.
But it’s then revealed to us, before Henry knows, that Dudley has changed position and is still in the room.
This quiet revision of the schema is in keeping with the film’s other jabs at Afterlifer conventions. At another point, Henry demands that Dudley execute a miracle. He locks the study door, evidently expecting Dudley to stalk through it in the usual phantom fashion. Instead, Dudley just twists the knob, magically opens it, and exits, closing it behind him and leaving Henry to bang against the relocked door.
Re-turning the screw
In general, supernatural romances play down the magical side of the Afterlifers’ visits. This is partly because they rely on a certain ambiguity about who can see what.
Henry James’ brilliant tale “The Turn of the Screw” provides an instance that people have argued about for generations. The unnamed governess, sent to take care of little Miles and Flora, starts to see dead people: the servant Peter Quint and the governess Miss Jessel. Most of her encounters with the ghosts take place when she’s alone, or with the children. Since the story is narrated from her viewpoint, and in the first person, we have no other testimony about the apparitions. The children seem to spot the spooks, but we can’t be sure. And we can’t be sure that they aren’t simply figments of the governess’s imagination. In the one scene that brings in another witness, the housekeeper Mrs. Grose declares that she can’t see Quint or Miss Jessup. Is the governess mad, or are the children really haunted by the corrupt couple?
The tension exemplifies what narrative theories Tzvetan Todorov called the “fantastic,” the tale of uncertain explanation. The fantastic hovers between scientific, or at least real-world explanations, and supernatural ones. Either the ghosts exist, as in most ghost stories, or they can be explained psychologically, as the narrator’s hallucinations.
Actually, in film, and I think in “The Turn of the Screw,” there’s a third possibility: that the Afterlifers exist as beings who can be seen only by the select few. In “The Turn of the Screw,” Flora definitely seems to see Miss Jessel on one occasion, so perhaps we can posit that the governess sees the ghosts when Mrs. Grose can’t.
This possibility is of course the premise for The Sixth Sense, and we find it as well in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, in which Gregg is visible only to Mrs. M. The situation is more equivocal in Portrait of Jennie (1949). In this film, David O. Selznick inflated the fantasy-romance genre as he had pumped up the historical drama (Gone with the Wind), the home-front film (Since You Went Away), and the western (Duel in the Sun).
During the winter and spring of a single year, the luckless painter Eben Adams encounters Jennie at different points in her life: as a little girl, a teenager, a college student, and a mature woman. He falls in love with her. Their penultimate encounter takes place when she comes to his apartment and allows him to paint her portrait. Then she disappears.
Is Jennie a time traveler or a ghost or an illusion, or even a supernatural muse? A bit of each. After each brief visit she withdraws, leaving Eben yearning for her. The art dealer Miss Spinney suggests that in order to paint well, Eben must love someone, so perhaps he has conjured up Jennie to inspire his art. It’s true that he sketches, draws, and paints several Jennies. (The final version, the portrait, won’t be shown us until the film’s last image, in blazing Technicolor.) And it’s true that, in a scene much like that featuring Mrs. Grose in James’ tale, we get a hint that Eben is hallucinating Jennie.
He has just spoken with the adolescent Jennie in Central Park when Spinney comes up to him. He watches Jennie go off, in a standard passage of continuity editing.
But then, thanks again to continuity eyeline technique, Spinney doesn’t see her.
Normally this cutting pattern would suggest that Jennie is purely Eben’s vision. (For a modern example, see Johnnie To’s The Mad Detective.) Yet we will soon learn that Jennie did exist. Playing detective, Eben discovers that she was orphaned, taken care of in a convent, and left for college—all things her apparition told him. Worse, he learns how she died: on a rocky seacoast he has already depicted in some paintings.
Selznick was concerned to make Jennie neither a real person nor a pure product of Eben’s imagination. In an early story conference he remarked that Jennie is both in Eben’s mind and in some really existing realm. “We must convince the audience that this story may be strange and odd, but it’s true. All the other characters may say, “Poor Adams, he must be nuts,’ but we know it is true.” The fact that only Eben can see Jennie doesn’t make her a figment of his imagination. Eben may have conjured her up, but she also chose to visit him, predicting that some day he will paint her portrait. The man has, somehow, met a woman from a spiritual world who has been seeking him. Eurydice-like, she will be pulled back into it.
Too few fancies, one powerful friend
Recognizing that spirits can become selectively visible to the living helps explain the delicate power of another supernatural fantasy of the period. The Curse of the Cat People (1944) uses hyper-judicious framing and editing to create perhaps the most mysterious 1940s Afterlifer.
Irena, the woman who can change into a panther, has died in The Cat People (1943). Her widowed husband Oliver has married Alice, and their child Amy, dreamy and unpopular, wishes for a friend. Near the start of the film we’re led to think that Irena is that imaginary friend, wholly a product of Amy’s mind. Irena comes to her in the garb of a traditional princess or fairy godmother, a bit like the fairy of Pinocchio (1940), so we might take her as Amy’s imagining. And the teacher Miss Callahan, who might seem to be playing the raisonneur, says that the little girl has “too many fancies, too few friends.” But that doesn’t seem to me quite right. I don’t think that ultimately Irena is Amy’s projection. Nor are we exactly in the realm of Todorov’s fantastic, hesitating between subjective and objective explanations.
Consider the progression in the film’s depiction of Irena. At first, Amy is shown playing in the garden, purportedly with her friend but alone in the frame.
Later she says that her friend taught her a song, but she can’t recall the words. This suggests that that encounter, kept offscreen, is a vague one. That night, as Amy awakes from a nightmare, she is soothed back to sleep by her friend, whom we hear softly singing but see as only a shadow. Her lullaby continues as Amy sleeps.
Still later, Irena appears to Amy in the garden only after Amy sees a picture of her. Irena appears un-magically, entering the shot as casually as Dudley or Captain Gregg and holding the ball that Amy has tossed out of frame.
Amy asks her who she is. “I’m your friend.” The fact that Amy doesn’t recognize her from earlier friend-encounters, suggests that the friend wasn’t yet defined in bodily form. She had magical powers, such as darkening or lightening the garden or teaching Amy a song, but she assumed no particular shape. We, however, saw her female silhouette while Amy slept. Now Irena is fully embodied, and we can see her along with Amy.
Apart from the Irena scenes, we do get into Amy’s mind. But the techniques used in those scenes are ones that are never applied to Irena. When a deranged neighbor lady recites the tale of the Headless Horseman, we get exaggerated optical POV shots from Amy’s perspective and the subjective sound of wind and horses’ hooves.
The sounds are repeated as auditory flashbacks in Amy’s nightmare and while she is hiding in the forest during the climactic snowstorm. Later, Amy will calm the old woman’s homicidal daughter by envisioning her as Irena (in a superimposition) and embracing her as “My friend.”
From a storytelling standpoint, such images and sounds are sharply distinguished from Irena’s scenes with Amy. Those are treated in quite a neutral, objective manner.
There’s more. At the midpoint of the plot, in a crucial scene, Oliver learns that Amy considers the dead Irena as her playmate. He’s convinced she’s imagining it all. Anxious and angry, he takes her out into the garden and demands to know if Irena is there. Amy sees Irena under the tree, but Oliver doesn’t. As in Portrait of Jennie, reverse-angle cutting conveys each character’s vision.
In cinema, we assume objective (fictional) reality to be the default value. So the incompatible viewpoints of Amy and Oliver in the garden might suggest that Irena exists only in Amy’s mind. But in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and Portrait of Jennie, the protagonist can see the ghost when no one else can. Nothing in this garden encounter denies the possibility that Irena is a ghost visible only to Amy and us.
We get some immediate backing for this. When Amy looks at Irena a second time, at Oliver’s insistence, Irena puts her finger to her lips, as if urging Amy not to acknowledge her.
This, to put it stiffly, is the action of an independent agent. Amy is unlikely to conjure up an imaginary friend who warns her to keep quiet. And by telling Oliver that of course she sees her friend, she disobeys just as briskly as if Irena were of flesh and blood.
We have a clincher at the very end of the scene. Oliver and Amy go in, turning away. Neither sees the garden, but we get two shots of Irena watching them and reacting unhappily.
Again, it’s hard to reconcile this image with Irena being a pure projection. She’s behaving like an ectoplasmic free agent. In addition, Alice and Oliver, despite their skepticism about Amy’s friend, don’t rule out supernatural goings-on completely. At various points both mention they sense Irena’s presence in the house. Irena has become in the course of the action a full-fledged ghost, but one with benefits.
The epilogue confirms Irena’s otherworldly mission. As Oliver takes Amy into the house, he asks if she can see Irena. She looks and sees her, smiling.
Can Oliver see Irena? Now that he’s decided to trust Amy, he says yes—without even looking.
As in the earlier garden scene, once father and daughter have gone inside, we’re treated to an independent shot of Irena under the tree. And now she melts away, in the conventional disappearing act of an Afterlifer. As with Captain Gregg’s withdrawal from Mrs. Muir, by saving this well-worn option for this moment the filmmakers invest it with an air of permanent departure.
The Curse of the Cat People cleverly invokes the possibility that Irena is purely imaginary, then dispels it. For once, nobody redundantly explains to us who can and who can’t see the ghost; we have to figure things out. Instead, the vague role of imaginary playmate gets gradually defined as Irena, the ghost. Continuity editing is recruited to suggest that Irena is coalescing into the friend Amy wishes for. At first only an atmosphere, then a shadow, and finally a properly solid spirit, Irena is a shape-shifter, more elusive than other apparitions of the period. The plot creates a sympathetic spirit seeking to console a lonely child and correct her father’s harsh, plodding common sense. Perhaps making amends for her effort to destroy Oliver’s romance with Alice in the previous film, the dead cat-woman fills out the role of imaginary playmate and saves a family.
There are other ingenious ways that the conventions of 1940s supernatural films are tweaked by the resources of continuity style, and I’ll be considering them in the book. The general point is that even schemas as commonplace as eyeline matching, or conventions as hoary as having a ghost dissolve out of the scene, can take on new force when filmmakers practice their craft with discreet intelligence.
Earthbound‘s ghost effect derives from a prism set in front of the camera. Warner Baxter is located in an adjacent set, and one face of the prism was silvered to reflect him onto the primary set. The best description I’ve found is here, thanks to good old Lantern. But we need more information. How can Baxter move so precisely around “our” set if he’s offscreen? Presumably, he’s in either a black set or one with furnishings laid out like ours. In that case, the furniture would need to be draped in black, so parts of his body will be blocked to the right extent. But in either case, we need to explain how he manages to synchronize his movements so exactly with the actors in front of the camera. If you know more, please correspond!
My quotation from Selznick comes from “Portrait of Jennie Conference notes (1/20/47),” David O. Selznick collection, Box 1123, file 11, Harry Ransom Research Center. Thanks to Emilio Banda and to Steve Wilson, Curator of Film at the Harry Ransom Center.
You probably know that “The Turn of the Screw” was filmed as The Innocents (1961). It’s also the basis of a strong Benjamin Britten opera.
A vast survey of Afterlifers on screen is provided in James Robert Parish, Ghosts and Angels in Hollywood Films (McFarland, 1994).
For more on my still-in-progress book on 1940s Hollywood, go here and here. If you’re keen on the Forties generally, you might be interested in The Rhapsodes, my study of film criticism of the period, to be published in March by the University of Chicago Press.
Premium Rush (David Koepp, 2012).
After nine years, over 700 entries, and many essays and other stuff, this contraption of a website has started to intimidate us.
If we’re intimated, you might be flabbergasted. Although a set of categories sits on the right to guide your exploration of this tangled databank, those too loom large and discouraging. So we’ve decided to tidy up by–how else?–adding another entry.
We’ll occasionally offer a stripped-down guide to our writing on certain topics. We’ll steer you to entries that we think represent the core of our thinking on a problem, and then add some that probe more deeply, for those who want to go beyond the basics. Since one of our areas is narrative theory and analysis, a good first effort, we thought, would be to produce a sort of DIY syllabus that systematically surveys the topic as we’ve explored it. And since we’ve often written about classical Hollywood storytelling, and since many of our readers are interested in that…well, the syllabus sort of wrote itself.
We call these ideas open secrets of storytelling because by and large they aren’t acknowledged in the screenplay manuals that aspiring writers read. In most cases, we’ve had to devise our own concepts and terms, based on watching hundreds of movies. Yet these observations are wide open, available in our books and on this site.
Now comes our chance to pull them together. The result isn’t an utterly comprehensive theory of classical Hollywood narrative, but it does give a fair sampling of the range of questions we’ve tried to answer about it. The topics, linked to essays and blog entries, are arranged in three layers.
The most basic layer is an array of key ideas about story worlds, plot structures, and strategies of narration. These ideas are introduced in the first entry, “Understanding film narrative: The trailer.” Discussions of other basic concepts follow. Just reading the entries pegged to those topics, you could get a solid sense of what we’re aiming at. For most of those, we also propose a film you might view to test how the ideas work.
At a second level, for some topics we include some entries that dig deeper. They’re either more complex and advanced, or they provide some historical background.
Finally, after we’ve reviewed the key topics, we add a batch of case studies that use several of the tools we’ve laid out. These are usually very deep dives into particular films. They aim to show how the analytical ideas can bring out distinctive features of particular movies. The case studies are pretty wide-ranging, but they tend to hover around specific problems, such as adaptation or the creation of fantasy worlds.
How could you use this resource? A teacher in high school or college could draw on it as a partial syllabus or just a thumbnail list of supplementary material for a course. Teachers using Film Art: An Introduction could treat it as a supplement to our section of Chapter 3 on classical narrative. Or a student might find an idea for a paper in this vicinity.
Since we’ve always tried to link film studies and filmmaking, we hope that practitioners might be interested too. For example, an aspiring screenwriter could take this as a weekly reading/viewing agenda, treating it as a free course in story analysis. General readers who simply want to know more about the mechanics of cinematic storytelling should find something provocative here too. For everybody: Feel free to use it as Narrative Analysis 101.
We thank our many loyal readers of this blog, as well as the many more who have just dropped by once or twice. Your continued interest has helped us keep going.
Open Secrets of Hollywood Storytelling
Understanding film narrative: The trailer. Suggested viewing: The Wolf of Wall Street.
Advanced: Three Dimensions of Film Narrative: Narration, plot structure, and story worlds. Suggested viewings: The Godfather, Jezebel.
Advanced: Stories beget stories. Suggested viewing: American Hustle.
Actions and agents
Introduction to classical plot structure. Suggested viewing: Many possibilities listed.
Historical background: Is there a 3-act structure?
Action films: Did spectacle kill classical plotting? Suggested viewing: Mission: Impossible 3.
Advanced: Block construction. Suggested viewing: Kill Bill, Pulp Fiction.
How many protagonists? Suggested viewing: The Big Short.
The importance of coincidence. Suggested viewing: Serendipity.
Narrative parallels among characters and periods. Suggested viewing: Julie and Julia, Enchantment.
Advanced: Fine-grained parallels between scenes. Suggested viewing: The Prestige.
Time shifts: How flashbacks work. Suggested viewing: The Power and the Glory.
Advanced: Time shifts without flashbacks. Suggested viewing: Exodus.
Advanced: Nested flashbacks. Suggested viewing: Passage to Marseille, The Locket.
Historical background: Flashbacks and plot problems. Suggested viewing: The Great Moment, All about Eve.
Replays. Suggested viewing: Mildred Pierce.
Advanced: The auditory replay. Suggested viewing: Sudden Fear.
Network narratives. Suggested viewing: Grand Hotel.
Forking-path plotting. Suggested viewing: Source Code.
Advanced: Film Futures. Suggested viewing: Sliding Doors.
Historical background: What-if narratives. Suggested viewing: Dangerous Corner
Beginnings and endings: Molly Wanted More. Suggested viewing: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Silence of the Lambs.
Telling more or less
Visual storytelling. Suggested viewing: Mission: Impossible.
The hook between scenes. Suggested viewing: Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler; National Treasure.
Narration: omniscient versus restricted. Suggested viewing: Cloverfield.
Historical background: Hitchcock, suspense, and surprise.
Alignment and allegiance. Suggested viewing: House by the River.
Character subjectivity, optical and mental. Suggested viewing: The Silence of the Lambs.
Historical background: Subjectivity and sound. Suggested viewing: Nightmare Alley, The Fallen Sparrow.
Voice-over narration. Suggested viewing: All about Eve.
Advanced: Dead narrators. Suggested viewing: Laura, Confidence.
Historical background: Inner monologue. Suggested viewing: Strange Interlude.
Case studies in narrative analysis
These are exercises in film criticism that utilize several of the tools laid out above.
Boyhood and Harry Potter: The actors’ lives as part of the narrative.
Eastern Promises: Thematic echoes in an auteur’s narratives.
Premium Rush: How goals and deadlines create tight construction.
Side Effects and Safe Haven: Fragmentary flashbacks and patterns of suspense.
Slumdog Millionaire: Adapting a novel to classical norms.
The Bourne Ultimatum: Plotting across franchise installments.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Ghost Writer: Classical structure in genre fiction.
The Magnificent Ambersons: How to manipulate time without flashbacks.
The Prestige: Using sound to enrich flashback construction.
The Walk: Each act a different genre.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: Elliptical narration: The viewer’s responsibility.
As we write more entries relevant to narrative, we’ll revisit this DIY syllabus.
Needless to say, we consider these matters more closely in several of our books. See The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960, by Kristin, Janet Staiger, and me, and Kristin’s Storytelling in the New Hollywood and Storytelling in Film and Television. For my part, there’s Narration in the Fiction Film and The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies. I’m at work on a book on narrative innovations in 1940s Hollywood, the central source of much that we encounter in today’s films.