n his book on Understanding Film Texts: Meaning and Experience, Patrick Phillips describes the distinction between a fully formed character and the figures on screen who are their simply to provide bodies to inhabit the dietetic world. “A character, as opposed to a figure who simply performs a narrative function, will have a set of characteristics and, in realist narrative, these will usually be seen to connect directly or indirectly with the decisions they make and the actions they perform.”
This essay will look at how closely narrative and character are connected, how characters create drama from personal motivation in some instances and how outside forces push them into dramatic situations in others. The essay will also consider how voice over narration affects the audiences understanding of character, and briefly discuss the presentation of narrative and character in surrealist cinema.
Narrative film is largely concerned with people’s personal lives and never so much more than in the Hollywood biopic. Audiences are often fascinated by the ‘true’ stories of the famous and infamous. In many films such as Ray (2004 Taylor Hackford), Blow (2001 Ted Demme) or Walk the Line (2005 James Mangold), narrative arcs and character arcs are one and the same thing. Biopics of this nature often attempt to ‘get behind’ into the private lives of public figures in order to ‘fully’ understand the protagonists character.
Character is defined by the way that people react to the situations they are faced with. (The man who stays to fight the good fight is brave; the man that flees is a coward.) However the situations that people find themselves in are likely to be caused by the character of a person and the choices they make. The famous opening line of Goodfellas (1990 martin Scorsese) is spoken by the protagonist Henry Hill (Ray Loitta) in voiceover and simply states, ‘As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster.” Henry is seduced by a life of crime at a very young age by the gangsters that hang out in his neighborhood. Their affluence and frivolity that they display by spend their time drinking out side the cabstand is in stark contrast to the poverty and domestic violence that he witnesses at home.
The course of Hills life is made clear during an opening flashback sequence in which we see briefly the teenage years of Henry’s life. This sequence climaxes with Henry desribing how some boys from the nieghbourhood carried his mother’s groceries home out of ‘respect’ whilst the screen depicts a frozen image of Henry running away from a car explosion he had started. The fiery imagery is totally clear; Henry is on the path to hell.
Throughout the film we see that Henry’s success as a gangster is largely due to his natural charm, charisma and intelligence, although he never reaches a major position of power amongst the mafia hierarchy. In a sequence set wonderfully to the sounds of the piano outro from Eric Clapton’s song Layla, we see the demise of the Lufthansa heist gang, each of the gang members has been murdered by Jimmy (Robert de Niro) who is himself paranoid of being arrested. This sequence illustrates the respect for human life that the mobsters completely lack, and highlights the dangers of the world that Henry inhabits. We understand from this sequence that no matter how confident Henry of his position, there is no loyalty or honor amongst thieves and betrayal by his friends is a very real possibility.
Henry Hill’s character arc is that of the rise and fall. The fall is either caused by a single event or a flaw or folly within the protagonist themselves. In the scene leading up to his arrest Henry is sweaty, gaunt and anxious from too much cocaine use. His appearance is completely changed from the confidant and presentable man that we saw earlier in the film. He has become a victim of his own vivacious appetite for drugs and money. The drugs and greed have clouded his mind and judgment and allowed him to make mistakes that have lead to his arrest.
Henry Hill’s narrative arc is defined by the choices that he makes throughout his life. Even when circumstances move beyond his control such as when he faces the choice between testifying against his friends and going to prison; we can see that he has brought the situation down upon himself through his own character and his own flaws.
Goodfellas follows a character and narrative arc that is typical of the gangster genre. Generic conventions of motif and character are integral to our understanding of narrative; they are the cinematic equivalent of mythical motifs in folklore. Phillips describes how familiarity with storytelling tradition informs our understanding of narrative. “We make meaning from reference to our knowledge of the world and from our knowledge of the conventions of film storytelling, especially genre.” However many successful films achieve their success through subversion of generic convention and storytelling tradition.
The Big Lebowski’s title (1997 Joel Coen) echoes the title of the classic film noir The Big Sleep (1946 Howard Hawks.) The film itself contains many of the character archetypes and iconic motifs of film noir; however the specific generic signifiers altered. The film is a subversion of the genre. The film Noir hero in the Phillip Marlowe mould is a tough, hard drinking, disreputable man who inhabits the seedy underworld of American life. He is motivated to work out of an obsessive professional compulsion. In The Big Lebowski the hero is Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) has been mutated into an aging hippy whose comfortable and lazy existence is interrupted by fate and circumstance.
In her book on narration in new Hollywood cinema, Kristen Thompson establishes a link between character and narration.
“In virtually all cases, the main character in a classical Hollywood film desires something, and that desire provides the forward impetus for the narrative. Hollywood protagonists, tend to be active, to seek out goals and pursue them rather than having goals simply thrust upon them. Almost invariably, the protagonist’s goals define the main line of action.’
It is fortunate that Thompson has left room for exceptions in her analysis as The Dude is certainly an exception. The Dude has no clear motivation for anything other than his love of bowling. He seems to undertake his role as private investigator because it is easier than ignoring it. As he proclaims himself when things start to get too involved, “The dude just wanted his rug back!”
It is coincidence that draws him into the films plot and the will of others that keep him connected to it. Initially it is the fact that he shares a surname and is confused with ‘The Big Lebowski’ (David Huddleston) who is in trouble with known villain and pornographer Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara.) It is this simple mistaken identity that brings intrigue, violence and crime into the dude’s life.
The Dude’s house is constantly invaded when he is vulnerable and attempting to relax and he becomes the victim of unchecked aggression. Firstly he is attacked when he returns home from bowling to an unlit apartment, secondly he is knocked unconscious when he is lying on his rug closed eyed listening to a cassette player and lastly the nihilists set loose a marmot in his bath tub whilst he is bathing.
The Dude is also very suggestible and is easily led by the will of his friends. He is often heard read repeating what other characters have said earlier in the film, sometimes out of context. It is at Walter’s (John Goodman) suggestion that he go to see Mr. Lebowski to get recompense for his soiled rug, it is also Walters’s intervention that foils the handover of the ransom and seemingly gets The Dude more deeply involved in the plot. Rather than paying visits or ‘shakedown’ potential witness, the dude is perpetually summoned to meetings, at which further narrative information is divulged. Left to his own devices the Dude would discover very little.
With his unkempt hair and bearded, grubby tee-shirts, shorts and sandals, the Dude is the epitome of the physical embodiment burnt out hippy. He is a laid back stoner willing to relax and let events unfold around him. He is amiable and likeable, and it is from his subjective point of view that we unravel the mystery. The audience is never privy to information that is denied to the dude. It is his character that makes him so easily manipulated by outside sources especially ‘the big Lebowski’ whose fake kidnapping sting sets the dude up as fall guy his embezzlement of charity money.
It is the subversion of the archetypal private eye character that makes The Big Lebowski so successful. The Dude is a recognizable and fully developed character that the audience can relate to as opposed to a figure that is so well documented it has almost become a stereotype or a parody of itself. The narrative of the film is made all the more intriguing by the fact that we are not sure how our protagonist is going to go about solving the mystery.
The Big Lebowski is introduced and epilogue by voiceover narration by a mysterious omnipotent character known only as ‘the stranger.’ (Sam Elliot) The use of a voice over narrator is one method of telling the story from a particular perspective. A heterodiegetic narrator is a narrator who is not they themselves a character within the story. These are often used as an objective observer, perhaps a surrogate or personification of the films ‘author.’ This can be seen in many other films including The Princess Bride (1987 Rob Reiner) and The Royal Tenenbaums (2001 Wes Anderson ). This type of narrator usually introduces and then provides the epilogue for the film, easing the audience in and out of the story.
Homodiegetic narrators; that is narrators who themselves are characters within the film; have a very different role to play. By giving a particular character a voice with which to directly address the audience; whether or not that character is themselves the films protagonist; the character is awarded an immense subjectivity. In these circumstances the narration of the film becomes fundamentally linked to the way that we understand the character, as we as audience are let into that particular character’s own personal perspective. Casino (Martin Scorsese 1995) provides the viewer with not just one but two different voices over narrators who switch back and forth through out the film. This gives two different subjective perspectives on the same events.
However the subjective narration may or may not be the perspective that we the audience are supposed to share. Before we can make that distinction we must first of all look at all the other formal elements that are presented to us through the narration of the director through the use of lighting, framing, editing, color sound and so forth. We recognize through these elements another voice that is the voice of the image-maker, this voice may be used to either give credence or undermine a given characters vocal narration.
In her writing on first person narrators Sarah Kozlof quotes Christian Metz in saying “The spectator perceives images which have obviously been selected (they could have been other images) and arranged (their order could have been different.) In a sense he is leafing through an album of predetermined pictures and it is not he who is turning the pages but some ‘master of ceremonies,’ some grand image maker’”
The fact that the spoken narration may be at odds with the narration from the image-maker leads to unreliable narrators. In these situations we as an audience have to weigh what the narrator is saying against what the image-maker is saying in order to ascertain the meaning of the film, as Kozlov explains it.
“If the narrators commentary and the image makers scenic presentation are disparate enough, the viewer will gradually nullify his contract with the narrating voice and realize that the story is actually being presented by a wiser heterodiegetic image-maker.”
The protagonist of Fight Club (Dir David Fincher, 1999) Jack (Edward Norton) is a homodiegetic frame narrator. As such the narration of the film is highly subjective to Jack’s own personal point of view. In an early scene Jack establishes both his own personal point of view and one of the films major themes through his voiceover. He describes his dissatisfaction with modern life whilst his narration is supported by the imagery. He talks about being a ‘slave to the Ikea nesting instinct,’ we see him walking through his apartment but with everything labeled and priced as if he were trapped inside a catalogue. The visual metaphor supports the characters words and it is apparent to the audience that the story’s themes and narrative are being presented to us through Jacks own subjective experience.
Jack’s alliance and subjective influence over his audience is enhanced by direct reference to the mechanics of filmmaking and the fictionality of the diegesis, through direct reference to what we see in the frame. For example in the seen in which Bob (Meat Loaf) is introduced, Jack calls our attention to him by telling us to ‘see the big moosey.’ In a later scene in which he is explaining Tyler’s (Brad Pitt) terrorism of the hotel food industry, he breaks the fourth wall and talks directly to the camera. The line between the image-maker and Jack as narrator is blurred. We as the audience are led to feel comfortable with Jack and to except his commentary at face value. We are invited to share Jacks world perspective.
Although Jack’s narration of the story is retrospective it is also told in direct discourse with little reference to future events. As such the audience experiences the story with Jack and emphasize with his dissatisfaction at life, and his revitalization. At the crucial scene when Jack discovers that he and Tyler are one and the same the voiceover stops before returning with the line “Please return your seatbacks to their full and upright position.” The line is recognition of the audience’s disbelief that the character is experiencing.
Although the film leads us to sympathize, empathize and follow Jack’s perspective for the majority of the film; once the audience is aware that Jack and Tyler are the same person the narrative of the previous ninety minutes must be completely reevaluated. Including as Phillips suggests the presentation of the films other characters.
“If we see a character through the eyes of another character, who has a very distinctive attitude, this may influence our view of that character too. This is, of course, complicated by the fact that we have to take into consideration what we know about this other person and the ‘reliability’ of their point of view.”
Through reevaluation and re-narration of the films previous events we come to understand the character of Marla (Helena Bonham Carter. Throughout the film she has been sleeping with Tyler and desperately making advances on Jack. Once we are aware of the films twist we can see that she is not herself an irrational and emotionally damaged women, but she is involved with a man who himself is mentally ill.
The first morning after she has slept with Tyler, Jack shocks her with his off hand and rude attitude towards her and she leaves offended. In the first version of this scene Marla’s flirty behavior towards Jack and the extent to which she is offended both seem excessive. Looking at the scene in retrospect after the twist is revealed Marla becomes a sympathetic character. We can see that she is working hard at a relationship with a man whose behavior is unexplainable and irrational.
Of course no discussion of Fight Club would be complete without a discussion of Tyler as a personification of Jack’s ID. The pleasure centre of the male brain suppressed to the point of breaking and released through a dervish of hedonistic need-gratifying instinctual sexuality and aggression. Project mayhem is a focus of Jacks aggression onto the corporations that cause the dissatisfaction with modern life. It is the unrestrained release of Jacks suppressed internalized instinct that is the catalyst for the events of the film and lead to the explosive finale. Here we can see that in this most it is character that is driving the narrative forward.
The deeper implications of Fight Club’s ending segue nicely towards discussion of surrealist film. But before we move on we must return momentarily to the distinction that Phillips made between a character and a figure with narrative function, we can see that he qualifies the statement by making his comments specific to realist narrative. In a surrealist film with a non linear narrative the relationship between character and narration may be altered.
In David Lunch’s Mulholland Dr. (2001) characters may become surrogates for the audience in their quest to understand what is going on. The film centres around two women Betty (Naomi Watts) and Rita (Laura Elana Harring.) Rita has lost her memory and found her way to Betty’s apartment with a wounded head and bag full of money. The film follows their shared quest to find Rita’s true identity as well as the lives of other characters to which the women are somehow connected.
We as audience are also on a quest to decipher Lynch’s narrative, and at moments of revelation such as the money in the handbag, or Rita’s memory of the name Dianne Selwyn; we as audience and they as characters are intrigued and excited at the possibility of placing another piece of the narrative jigsaw puzzle. There is also of course the information that we are aware of the two women are not such as the involvement of shadowy figures such as Cowboy (Lafayette Montgomery) and Mr Roque (Michael J Anderson,) but this information poses more questions than answers. As a result the women’s story is relatively straightforward and increases audience identification. Buy dissertations online at our service
However despite this alignment of the audience and Betty as amateur sleuths Lynch’s narration suggests that there is more to consider that what is at face value. The presentation of Betty is at odds with the rest of the films ominous tone. When she is introduced she is wearing a pink sweater which is in stark contrast to the dark colours and blacks that the rest of the characters predominantly wear. The plotting of the film is deliberately vague and the narrative difficult to understand, however she is all too easy to understand as a wide eyed, naïve, positive and pretty young girl with dreams of stardom. The way she wholeheartedly embraces the stranger in her house and undertakes the quest to find out Rita’s identity is also difficult to accept. Her optimism is not in-keeping with the films dark, mysterious and dangerous tone and we are led into thinking that there is something more to discover about her.
The ending recasts Betty and Rita as Camilla and Dianne; that is to say that the characters that Harring and Watts played are swapped for other bit part characters within the film. Dianne is the jilted lover of Camilla who herself is a successful actress thanks to her underworld connections that have got her cast. Jealous and depressed Dianne hires an assassin to kill Camilla before turning the gun on herself. Betty effectively becomes the corpse that she had earlier discovered. The most common interpretation is that the first two thirds of the film is Dianne’s fantasy, dissatisfied with her life and upset at being jilted by her lover she fantasises a more optimistic alternative for herself.
Taking into consideration other scenes from the film, such as the Adam’s confrontational meeting with his films producers and the underworld connections that seem to be turning the Hollywood cogs, we can see that the film is in some small part a satire on the Hollywood system. We can then understand that within that frame work Betty/Dianne’s character arc is that of a tragic dreamy eyed hopeful who is used, abused and discarded by Hollywood.
The line between Diegetic ‘reality’ and fantasy is never clear in the film and narrative meaning is obtuse and deliberately elusive. Character, meaning and narration are all fluid, subject to change and open to interpretation.
A characters motivation may be the driving impetus of a films narrative, their obsession and desire being the key to their ultimate success or failure. Alternatively a character may be forced into the narrative against their will, and allow chance and circumstance to ultimately decide their fate. The voice of the protagonist may not be as informed as we would assume, and we must look for the Directors voice to ascertain meaning.
Our understanding of the resolution of narrative is determined by the qualities that the characters display through the events of the film. To return to the words of Patrick Phillips for one last time in this essay, he tells us that the relationship between character and narration is subject to the influence of the other formal elements of film making. “We receive all kinds of guidance from the text about how to respond to a character, - from their overall place within a narrative cause→effect chain to very specific ways that a character can be positioned within the mise en scène.” We must find the truth between how the character perceives them self and how that character is being presented. It is in this space that narrative meaning can be found.
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