Monday, June 29, 2015

How To Eat Art: Point Of View & Unreliable Narrators

Anthony Perkins portrays Norman Bates from Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. The problem with Psycho, which Hitchcock pulled off so brilliantly, is that we keep switching the point of view, which adds to the thrill of the film, as he knew it would. There are three types of narrators in a film: the hero, the tragic or anti-hero and the unreliable narrator. James Bond would be the perfect example of the hero (we will discuss him in the next post) because the viewer identifies with him and is happy to identify with him (in terms of his accomplishments and adventures); the tragic hero is someone basically doomed but you still listen to their story, like Dr. Frankenstein in Mary Shelly's novel. An unreliable narrator is one you question their motives or knowledge of the situation, such as Verbal Kent (Kevin Spacey) in The Usual Suspects
Point of view is probably the most boring aspect of art interpretation that we could begin with, since, after all, we learn it when we first start to learn reading in elementary school. With film, however, point of view becomes far more sophisticated than just the narrator's voice; take the case of Norman Bates. Are we listening to Norman talk, or is it his mother? Or is it a facet of his personality that hasn't even been diagnosed during the duration of the film? If we don't even know whose point of view the events and story are being told by, or at least the point of view of one of the main characters, the entire story becomes questionable.
But that doesn't mean it's chaos.
In an NPR interview, Dustin Hoffman revealed that the best piece of acting advice he ever got was how not to over-act: "You're on the big screen, you're all ready interesting!" a director told him. Trying not to step over that boundary was the job of the actor, he reasoned, not exceeding that boundary like he thought it was (and many do). Because the audience is so easily wrapped up in the plot of the narrative, we will basically buy into anything (how many times does someone go into a dark room in a horror film, and yet, we still watch it?). Are we projecting ourselves onto the actor? No, rather, the actor tries to emerge from us, they need us in the audience to realize that the character is a part of us, rather than the audience becoming a part of the character. This becomes difficult for some actors who have been in so many films it's hard to see their character instead of the actor.
Point of view works because of a sneaky bit of magic that takes place when the audience member buys their ticket, sits down in the theater and the lights go out: the willing suspension of disbelief. Without the audience member's entering into an agreement with the artist to not question the premise or the events, characters or plot, the viewer agrees that they are not going to question the probability or details of something being realistic or feasible, in exchange for being entertained (we know that not all viewers will suspend disbelief, but courteous viewers do). In The Graduate with Dustin Hoffman, we don't question how Benjamin Braddock can seduce Mrs. Robinson at the same time he's seeing her daughter Elaine; why not?
Oedipus Rex, and the solving of the riddle of the sphinx. In his play of  the same name, Sophocles tells the story of Oedipus who, running away so as not to fulfill a prophecy of murdering his father and marrying his mother, ends up doing exactly that. Oedipus is the perfect example of a hero that the audience could identify with, not because they wanted to kill their fathers and marry their own mothers (because this didn't happen) but because they wanted to throw off the burden of Homer and the Homeric heroes they had been dominated by for centuries (their father) and make Greece in their own image (marry the "motherland" and beget children in the form of art, war and treasure); and we can say this is an accurate reading because that is exactly what happened, called the Age of Pericles. Had the same events been told from the perspective of  Queen Jocasta, the mother of Oedipus, the film would have had a completely different moral angle to it, and that perspective from which we gain the ability of a cultural horizon permits the appropriate assessment of the morality carried in the hero's point of view and the experiences of the narrative, which translates as the experiences of the entire culture. 
Because the country as a whole was doing the same thing as Benjamin, and that's why understanding the point of view of a narrative is so important: Mrs. Robinson's seduction of Benjamin mirrored the young 1960's Americans' desire for the comfortable, materialistic lifestyle of the older generation (symbolized by Mrs. Robinson), but they knew they had to be with the goals and values of their own times, symbolized by Elaine (Katherine Ross). The movie was a success because viewers understood that the story line wasn't to be taken literally, but metaphorically, even if they themselves couldn't/wouldn't articulate what that metaphor was, they knew it applied to them. The voice of the hero, the point of view from which the film is basing its own moral decisions and judgments about the events taking place, determines the entire outcome and whether or not the viewer hazards to identify with the hero, and this is powerful stuff.
Enter Alfred Hitchcock.
Why do the films of Alfred Hitchcock work? Why was he the "master of suspense?" Because he realized how the audience member's mind works,... it doesn't. When we watch a film, most of us aren't thinking, we are willingly in a near-vegetative state, experiencing the events of the plot and visual imagery almost like they are drugs working on our emotions while our brains are quiet. We aren't required to keep up our end of the conversation when we watch a film, or interact with the characters, and we aren't responsible for what does or doesn't happen; we are obligated by nothing. This seeming lack of obligation is what leads many--if not all--to declare that film is "escapist" rather than "artistic." The level of engagement with the film, however, does not determine the status of whether or not it's art (it can, however, be used in determining the quality of the art, but that is not our discussion at the moment). When we see a trailer for a new film, the mind is actually working over-time in a 2;00 minute span determining, by the rapid succession of events and dialogue the viewer witnesses, if "it looks good" or if it "doesn't look good." The mind is able to make subtle distinctions which most viewers would not be able to articulate, but will cost the studio millions of dollars, or make them millions of dollars, and this is based on the viewer's ability to identify the point of view of the story and whether the morality matches that of their own or not. Once this all important decision is made, the potential viewer becomes the actual viewer when they go to the theater, buy the ticket, and then sit back to eat popcorn and "enjoy the show." Enjoying the show, however, is not a mindless activity, just as dreaming is not a mindless activity; it might appear to be passive, but it's not mindless. The more the mind works during a film, the more enjoyed it is by the viewer (consider some of Christopher Nolan's best films, like Memento or Inception); the deeper a film takes its viewer into the viewer's own sub-conscious mind, the greater the enjoyment level for the viewer, because films are the dreams of a culture, and just as The Graduate posited the coming-of-age relationships with Benjamin and a mother and daughter to relate to the young people of that day the decision that was before them, so the point of view of the narration of the story will relate an important truth, a moral testament, and either the viewer will agree with it, or disagree with it, and that is the formula of whether or not a person finds that film to be "good."
Great artists are always in control, even when we the audience is not (especially when we the audience is not). In Psycho, after Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) excuses herself from work for the rest of the day, and makes off with thousands of dollars she has stolen, she sees her boss crossing the street in front of her on her way out of town and he sees her after she told him she was going home; the moment this happens, we the viewer are as anxious as she is about the events because we are implicated in her crime with her, even though we have done nothing wrong.
In a way, our identification with Marion is easy, because we have been watching her since the beginning and we know she is in love with Sam and we have an emotional tie to her; what's impressive is how quickly Hitchcock manages to divert our sympathy to Norman, even with the seeming injustice of Marion wanting to give the money back and preparing to confess to the theft the next day, we are still relieved when Marion's car sinks into the pond. That's genius. And this film was shot with only a TV crew, it wasn't Hitch's usual crew he was working with, so it was a huge departure for him.
After Marion has been murdered, Norman enters her room, sees the body and begins cleaning up the scene, putting her dead body into her car and sinking it into the lake,.... but then, the car doesn't sink, it gets stuck, and we're thinking, "Oh, no, go down, go down!" because we are afraid of getting caught and what we are going to do; we are implicated in Norman's guilt because we have all done something where we didn't want to get caught. Even though we have only been watching him on the screen for a few minutes, we have switched our "viewer identification," i.e., the point of view of the narrative, and are now rooting for the character who is covering up the murder of this poor, beautiful woman who was in love.
How does this happen?
I will write about this image when we get to the symbols, because this is good.
In a very real way, film, just like any art form, will serve a moralizing faculty: it's safe to identify with a bad character for awhile so that you can see why you shouldn't make those decisions and do those things in real life. For Catholics, this is called "imperfect contrition": perfect contrition is when a person realizes they have offended God and, because of their great love for God, they are sorry they have offended Him; imperfect contrition is when a person realizes that the sin they have committed could send them to hell and they are sorry for sinning because they don't want to go to hell; there is contrition in this case, but it's not as holy as exercising the fear of offending God. Many times, films/series such as Breaking Bad or Penny Dreadful show characters in horrible circumstances so the viewer can exercise a degree of emotional contrition for themselves/society/religion and avoid the decisions the characters have made and, hence, their fates. Is it willing suspension of disbelief, however, when we think Walt White needs to kill off this girl because she's becoming a liability and is going to threaten to destroy his drug business?
Verbal Kent (Kevin Spacey, far right) in The Usual Suspects. Verbal tells the officer a story and then, at the end of the show leaves; the officer then gets the intel that the man who just left was a notorious criminal who made up the entire story that we have just listened to from various random objects in the officer's office. The entire film that we just watched, was made up, on the spot, by Verbal, who wasn't even who he said he was. That's pretty unreliable.
We are not criminals because we start thinking like a criminal while watching a criminal show, just as (most of us) are not detectives just because we start thinking like a detective during a CSI episode. We are removed from the consequences of the decisions we are making as we (passively) watch the film, we are removed from the stress and emotional turmoil caused which would help us determine what path to take. "I feel like such a bad person for watching Breaking Bad, but I just can't stop!" someone told me. For this particular person, the show provides a safe release for her to deal with her emotions that she otherwise wouldn't permit herself to experience (catharsis), it's not about herself becoming a criminal, rather, allowing herself to become part of a larger cultural experience of shared emotions that aren't real, but teach something that is real, nonetheless. Unless, of course, we have a bad narrator,...
If you haven 't had an introduction into Japanese cinema, or haven't watched any of the Kurosawa films, this is always rated as one of the greatest films EVER MADE, so it's definitely worth your while. 
Akira Kurosawa's 1950 classic Roshomon is about as concentrated of a narrative from unreliable narrators as you can get. There is a bandit who meets a samurai and his wife on their way somewhere. The samurai is killed, and the bandit, the wife and even the dead samurai (through the medium of a kind of witch doctor) each tell a conflicting story of the events, then the wood-cutter who found the body also tells a totally different series of events. The film details the passing of blame and guilt for the cause and destruction of Japan in World War II, with the leaders (the samurai) and the soldiers (the bandit) arguing over who destroyed Japan, or if Japan inherently destroyed itself (was the wife raped, or did she want to leave her husband?) and then the commoners (the woodcutter) who had to bear the worst of the consequences for losing the war, had their side of what happened. This isn't a relative story, this is the actual events, and who did and said what that are being questioned; why is a unreliable narrator an asset to a work of art?
Another classic example of an unreliable narrator is Hero with Jet Li. He goes in telling one story, then another story comes out, and then a third story reveals itself. The moral wanderings of the lead character Nameless (Li) helps him arrive at the greatest moral state a warrior can achieve, the exact opposite of why he started out on the journey to begin with, to kill the man trying to unite China. The act of telling the different stories, and realizing his own story as it fit in with everything else, was what Nameless required to see the path he himself needed to take in order to achieve the moral point of view that would benefit him the most, laying down his sword. The different emotional and spiritual levels depicted in the film really communicate more about Nameless' own soul-state at that point in the story (where he is in the room with the emperor and is slowly realizing he's not going to kill him afterall) than about the other warriors who have decided to trust him. How? Because a story teller can only tell what they all ready know: Nameless starts out talking about the emotional immaturity of Broken Sword and Flying Snow because of his own spiritual immaturity; he ends up relaying the words Broken Sword wrote in the sand, because he has, like Broken Sword, progressed to the point that he can understand, so now, as a storyteller, he can give that version of the story to the audience as well. This aptly demonstrates why the point of view of a narrative is so important in identifying in a work of art, because it's identifying the well of morality the whole story is going to draw upon.
One, it demonstrates how unreliable we ourselves are in deciphering reality in our own lives, but more importantly, it slowly shifts us into taking a moral high road we might not choose for ourselves. When presented with events that the point of view disrupts in our own world view, we find ourselves doing some re-calculations about our own point of view in life. Ultimately, this is the point of every great work of art, and if we take time to identify something as simple as whose point of view are we being exposed to, then we are going to interact with the art on that deeper of a level and get that much more from the experience, thereby enriching ourselves.
Eat Your Art Out,
The Fine Art Diner
Owen Grady (Pratt) in Jurassic World demonstrates a main character who gives us a point of view that would appear to be feasible for an audience, but might actually be against the audience's morals when clearly broken down. Even as I was realizing that Owen was an anti-capitalist character, he is the character endowed with "common sense" that appears to be the wisest in the film and so the one that, like the kids, you want to stay with because you feel safe with him. In fact, he's the one who undergoes the biggest conversion in the film, even though it might not appear that way, but based upon his last line of dialogue.