Saturday, April 29, 2006
Order And Pleasure
The perception of order produces pleasure.
A hand reaches between two pillows, and pulls out an earring. This shot can be the high point of a movie, producing thrill, shock, recognition, and awe. In a rush of understanding, we realize that X has died, that Y was lying, that Z was having an affair with A, that B is innocent, etc, etc, etc. We feel pleasure as an avalanche of dramatic information washes over us, in stark contrast to the scantiness of the shot’s visual content of hand, pillows and earring. Our pleasure comes from the connections we have just made.
Connections in Narrative Film
The viewer’s eternal question of “What does this mean?” may be restated as: “What am I supposed to do with what I am seeing, hearing?”
Audiences are constantly processing information, ie making connections between signs. Realistic narrative exploits the huge store of shared connection-making power we soak up just by growing up in a particular culture: A heavily made-up woman in a miniskirt is kissing a man. She pulls his coat open, revealing a collar of a particular shape. We use our glimpse of the collar –no more than a strip of white—and make our connections: the man is a priest, the woman is a prostitute, this is a forbidden act, and so on. The woman pulls off her wig and groans in a deep voice. More connections. From the deep voice and wig, we conclude that “she’s” a man, and this one kinky priest. A door opens. We hear laughter and party music. In comes a Pharoah and a Cowgirl. They say “We were looking for you, Eddie.” The priest smiles sheepishly. In a split second, we reweigh and revise the connections. It’s a costume party. Eddie the priest is probably not a real priest, this is probably just a little role-playing, and so on. A skilled director controls the flow of screen visuals and sound to provoke our connection-making powers in exactly this way.
We make connections so automatically it’s hard for us to see the processes.We do it so naturally that even describing what we do as “making connections” feels somehow inaccurate. The phrase reminds us of things like algebra, translation or computer programming: abstract, intellectual, step-by-step operations; in contrast, we seem to take in film by near-instantaneous processes that feels like how we imagine telepathy might feel like. Seeing the simple strip of white of the clerical collar in the abovementioned scene instantly floods us with interest and/or uneasiness, in spite of the fact that there is nothing essentially dangerous about whiteness or collars. The danger we feel is the result of us having completely internalized the culture that associates that cut of collar with a thousand other things: ideas about priesthood, Sunday masses, the ten commandments, sexual taboos, other movies about priests, and so on. Our mastery of the meaning of the sign of the collar makes it difficult to see the simple geometric shape of the collar apart from everything we associate/connect with it. In the same way, it is nearly impossible for us to see the screen as a two-dimensional plane filled with differentiated light. The speed and invisibility of the sign-reading process contributes to our inability to see what narrative order might have in common with the order that underpins nonnarrative films, or even atemporal arts like painting or sculpture. This essay is an effort to make those connections clearer.
Internal and External Connections
It is useful to think of connections as being divided into two types: External and Internal connections. The connections we make with the collar is connection external to the scene. In spite of the fact that the scene does not include an anthropological documentary about the customs of the Catholic church, we know that that the whitecollared man is not supposed to be what he is doing. We connect the white collar with ideas about priesthood, celibacy and sin as a result of information we have accumulated from the life we lead outside the movie. On the other hand, the way we learn that the priest is not really a priest, is through an Internal connection, a connection established within the scene through the juxtaposition of party music, a Pharoah and a Cowgirl, the word “Eddie” and so on. (Wheels within wheels within wheels. Making meaning is a very complex affair. Thinking about how meaning is made makes you think of fractal graphics, designs that display the same level of detail and complexity no matter how much you zoom in. You can always zoom further in. For instance, the way we connect the sounds we hear in the scene above with “music” and “parties” is an external connection, as is the way we connect things like the girl’s big hat and string tie with “cowgirl” and so on. The more you think about it, the more you are put in awe of the sheer amount of information you must already have at your fingertips, in order to even begin to make sense of the simplest things.)
Internal and External are adjectives. They work exactly like the words inside and outside. A connection is either Internal or External depending on where you put the border. In the last scene of Blade Runner where Rick Deckard spirits Rachel out of his apartment, he sees a little paper crane on the floor outside his apartment door. We realize that the detective with the pock-marked face has been there. We know this because earlier in the movie, we saw the same detective making little figurines: a matchstick scarecrow, an origami dinosaur, and so on. We make a connection to a piece of information that is internal relative to the movie Blade Runner, but external to the scene Spiriting Rachel Away.
The more familiar/traditional an art form is, the more it can draw on external connections.The less familiar/traditional an art form is the more information it has to establish internally, for connections to be drawn. A story about sex taps into universal experiences. A science-fiction dystopia must internally establish the laws and taboos of its fictional society. A film about the life of a nine-year old female Untouchable in Uttar Pradesh cannot take anything for granted if it hopes to be understood outside Uttar Pradesh. And so on. (Put this way, it becomes easy to imagine someone wondering to himself: Would it be possible to create a film that had absolutely NO external connections? Perhaps something that used only fields of color. It would move from light to dark. Perhaps it would begin as one unified field of yellow and end with an image of a million little shivering worms of black. We could call it Zebra Crossing. And so on. This is the sort of problem-based thinking some experimental filmmakers do.)