Narrative Theory: A Brief Introduction
For our purpose, one major reason for studying cinematic narrative – quite apart from the fact that it is regarded as a legitimate course of study in its own right in colleges, or as part of a literature or cultural studies programme – is that it is not entirely encoded in language. The visual element is a very important part of cinematic narrative. Cinema thus plays a highly significant role in any attempt to gain a comprehensive picture of the main theoretical issues of narrative and hence should be discussed at length.
Before we go further, we must note that not every cinematic text is narrative. Documentary films, for example, may not be narrative. Even more comprehensively, we can say that not every part of cinematic texts is part of the narratives of these texts.
With regard to genre, cinematic texts in general have been classified in terms of the following:
1) narrative films,
3) experimental films,
4) animated cartoons;
The word ‘narrative’ is used in the first category above, but animated cartoons are also usually narrative, and elements of narrative may be present in documentaries and experimental films. Other possible classifications of cinematic genres may dispense with animated cartoons, as they can usually be classified as narrative films. Further general generic classifications make a two-fold distinction between narrative and documentary films, or, between fictional and non-fictional films.
The term feature film is sometimes used as another name for narrative films. But a feature film needs to be 100 minutes ± 30 minutes, whereas narrative films may be shorter. A feature film is usually the (main) film that we want to see when we go to the cinema. Historically, Edwin S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery (1903) was often regarded as the first feature film, although it was only twelve minutes in length.
There were many short films which told stories before this, such as The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (1895), which was made not long after film itself was born, and produced by Edison Studios, which was founded by the inventor, Thomas Edison. So the association of film with narrative has been there, right from the time that film itself as a medium was introduced.
Within fictional narrative films or feature films, a further distinction is sometimes made between
● those which are realistic and
● those which are fantastic.
The sub-genres of feature films should be quite familiar to most of us: for example, spy, Western, detective, musical films etc. These genres are usually accorded more scholarly respect than the corresponding genres in written literature. Film genres, just like other narrative genres (see chapter 9) are flexible and constantly evolving.
One question that may bother some of us in relation to film, or any other narrative using a visual medium, is whether one is actually dealing with narrative, or merely with the juxtaposition of images. This question arises from the close association of narrative with the idea of diegesis, especially the definition of diegesis connected with the idea of telling or presenting the story world. However, instead of dismissing or downgrading the ‘narrative’ element of cinematic narratives because the idea of telling or presenting the story world without an intermediary is problematic in them, we should instead view them as making us think whether telling itself, or the presence of a narrator (see section 11.21 below), should be regarded as an essential element of narrative in general.
A major interest in the cinema is the question of how a medium which is not fully linguistic can convey narrative.
There are clearly problems in any broad theoretical attempt to relate the cinematic medium to language. Unlike written narratives, it is a medium which is not entirely linguistic. In fact, our main interest in the cinema here is related to the question of how a medium which is not entirely linguistic can convey narrative.
However, some scholars have considered the cinema as a whole (and not only those parts which are encoded in language) as having a ‘language’ of its own. This idea can be linked to the structuralist belief that even non-linguistic entities can be analysed linguistically, or that they could be treated in linguistic terms. In another field, this belief has resulted in the treatment of a non-linguistic entity such as myth, as a language which can be analysed by using the methods and conceptions of linguistics. In the same vein, the cinema has been described as a ‘language’, with strong analogical linkages to natural languages in general. Extending the analogy with language, it has also been asserted that the cinema has different types of ‘languages’, or, that many ‘languages’ operate within a single film: the French film theorist Christian Metz for example, regards the cinema as a compound of many languages.
Based on the view stated above, which as we have said, is closely associated with structuralism, some scholars of the cinema have either made formal or informal comparison of features of the cinema with language, such as:
● The Russian film director, Sergei Eisenstein’s view that the shot, which he regards as the smallest indivisible unit in film, as equivalent to the word in language;
● Metz’s view of the the shot as being roughly equivalent to a sentence (1974a: 66-7).
● The Russian Formalists’ use of terms such as filmic syntax, and phrases and sentences when analysing the cinema.
● The Czech structuralist Jan Mukařovsky’s, analysis of the cinema in terms of its ‘syntactic’ and ‘semantic’ features.
Comparisons of cinema with language are especially prevalent during the era of the silent film when, in the words of Metz, some theoreticians of the cinema asserted that ‘[t]he image is like a word, the sequence like a sentence, for a sequence is made up of images like a sentence of words, etc.’ (1974a: 51).
Among theorists of the cinema, it is perhaps Christian Metz who is most prominent in making formal comparisons of language with the cinema. To him, ‘the “filmographic” venture is entirely justified, and that [film] must be fully “linguistic” – that is to say solidly based on linguistics itself” (1974a: 60). Metz views the cinematic image linguistically, as consisting of one or more sentences (1974a: 61-8). But a clear definition of what a cinematic ‘sentence’ is, is not given by Metz, save that he views the ‘sentence’ in the cinema, as we have seen earlier, as being roughly equivalent to the shot.
However, Metz does qualify his view about the association of the cinema with language: he states that although cinema is a ‘language’, it does not have a language system (1974a: 44-9). The reason for this is that cinematic codes are not fixed, and are not as well-organized as the codes of language. But there are films whose codes are more widely shared in a more fixed and organized manner by the members of particular sociocultural groups, such as films which belong to certain genres, or popular films which rely on well-worn formulas; following Metz's premises, should we then say that such films are therefore more ‘linguistic’ than others whose codes are less well-defined?
Metz also contends that the cinema is different from language because cinematic conventions involve a one-way communication from producer to receiver, unlike language, which is a two-way communication. But this is not actually correct: the one-way reception and comprehension of linguistic codes also occur when we listen to the news on the radio, or, for that matter, when we read a novel or poem whose author has long been dead, and who would thus not be able to engage in a two-way communication with us in any way, but this does not make the language of the poem or novel less ‘linguistic’ than the language of two-way conversational interaction.
The source of Metz's observations on language is quite obviously the linguistics, or rather the semiotics, of Ferdinand de Saussure, who believed that linguistics might form the basis of a more general science of signs. The Saussurean view postulates that language or linguistics is a master semiotic system upon which all other systems are modelled.
Saussure’s view has been influential. Apart from Metz in his analysis of film, another prominent scholar who has used Saussure is Roland Barthes, who uses his theory as a basis for his linguistic or quasi-linguistic analysis of non-linguistic systems such as fashion and advertisement.
Although we should be careful about the ‘linguistic’ analysis of film, the semiotic analysis of cinema, especially when one uses a semiotic model which does not strongly put linguistics up as a master discipline, can be quite fruitful.
There is a further aspect of discourse that may prove interesting when applied to cinematic narrative, and that is the analysis of film in terms of the sending or receiving of messages. Although a film usually does not have a (unitary) speaker as such, it has viewers and listeners (or viewer-listeners), and there is a message of some kind being received by the latter. There are films, such as those which have strong propagandistic elements in them, in which the discourse element may be foregrounded.
But the study of film as discourse is problematic for most films. The problem of discourse in film is related to that of communication in narrative in general, and fictional narrative in particular, which has been mentioned earlier in this book (see 1.7). One solution to this problem is to treat discourse only in films in which the communicative element (communication from the film to the viewer-listeners) is important.
However, discourse in film need not necessarily involve language. There is another dimension in cinematic discourse, which Metz has called image discourse, and in which communication is carried out not through language per se, but through images (1974a: 58-9). But you have to go outside of linguistics proper to do an analysis in this direction, and there is a good likelihood that the discourse here does not work in exactly the same way as it does in language.
As discourse in film may not be easy to analyse (unless we are analysing interactive conversation between film characters), the analysis of ideology in film too (save for propagandistic films in which the discourse element is foregrounded) may not be straightforward. Unless one can locate or identify the ideological position from which the subject ‘speaks’ or gives out his/her message, the analysis of ideology in film may be a tricky affair. In order for the analysis of discourse in film to work, one may have to anthropomorphise the camera, in order to locate the film’s ideological ‘centre’, in which case, the analysis of ideology too, will be made easier. The idea of anthropomorphising the camera does seem to work well with the translinguistic conception of discourse in terms of the conveyance of images. However, this cannot be realistically done.
Related to the study of discourse or cinematic communication is that of film rhetoric. Such works as Louis D. Giannetti's Understanding Movies and James Monaco's How to Read a Film treat films in rhetorical terms. The word rhetorical here is understood in the way it is used by Wayne Booth in his Rhetoric of Fiction, which should not be equated with communication in the straightforward sense. Rhetoric encompasses (as it is seen in written fiction) the author's awareness of the readers, and any type of relationship that can be established between the author and the reader.
In trying to use linguistics to analyse film, one must ultimately ask if one is merely using an analogy, or if one is trying to establish a stronger relationship between the two. One must also note here that the processing of information is usually more effective through sight than through hearing, and in viewing a film, a great deal may be conveyed to us through non-linguistic visual means. This factor may cast doubts on any assumption of a strong relationship between linguistics and film.
An important consideration in studying the relationship between language and cinematic narrative is silent movies, which are much less reliant on language than sound movies. The lack of language in silent movies actually makes them more ‘international’, as they are less reliant on particular languages which are not comprehensible to non-speakers.
The lower importance of language in cinematic narratives when compared to written narratives also becomes evident when one compares a film which is based on a written narrative with its original. In most cases, it will be readily apparent that the film version is necessarily less linguistic than the original. This is because its conversion into film partially involves the translation from a written linguistic medium to a visual non-linguistic medium, although there may be be stretches of dialogue which are read off straight from the book.
Films may not only be based on written narratives, but it has a close relationship with literature in general, especially with regard to the following genres:
● prose fiction and
The relationship with the above literary genres is apparent even if we are dealing with films that are not based on literary works.
Drama is related to film due to the presence of both sight and sound. However, unlike drama, film, is a ‘physical’ entity like prose fiction, in the sense that it is not a temporary one-off phenomenon, but can be kept as a commodity. As a consequence, the same cinematic performance can be reviewed as many times as one likes, so long as one has a copy of the film, just as one can read a book several times if one has a copy of the book.
With specific reference to drama, the problem of making a film from a play involves
● the translation of a verbal text to a succession of sight and sound, and
● the conversion of theatrical decor into cinematic decor.
Incidentally, it has also been said that the translation of a play to cinema involves the conversion of a dramatic work into a narrative work. But we have to believe that a dramatic work is not narrative before we can agree with this view.
One difference between cinema and dramatic performance is the possibility of editing the film after the performance by the actors. Editing makes cinema similar to the play as a written work, and to prose narrative, rather than to the play as theatre (see the previous section). Editing may also have an effect on the ‘authorship’ of a film, as the editor is usually neither the writer of the screenplay nor the director of the film, although there are some exceptions to this, especially in relation to film directors who are also editors of the film (for discussion on this, see the following sections).
Another difference between the two media centres round the sets. Films sets can either be studio sets or sets on location. In drama, it is virtually impossible to have sets on location. If a play is performed on location, then the set usually does not change; if it does, and we therefore have more than one set, these sets are usually not as varied as those found in the cinema, or even those found in a play performed in a theatre meant for dramatic performances.
Constricting sets which do not move rapidly from one scene to another and are not as varied as those normally found in the cinema are one problem sometimes faced in plays which have been made into films. Such films are known as ‘canned theatre’, and are usually unsuccessful. ‘Canned theatre’ however, seems to work better on television, which suggests that there may be important differences between narrative in cinema and on television.
One of the problems of cinematic narrative is the question of authorship. The essential question here is:
● who is responsible for what we see?
If this question is not a realistic one, then,
● who is ultimately responsible for what we see?
The concept of the author in film can in fact be shared amongst the writer, producer, director, actors, editor, etc., and this makes the concept of authorship problematic.
A cinematic work goes through several stages, thus making the question of who is responsible for the film a complicated one (see sections 16-19 below). In fact, due to several parties being responsible for the film, it may be helpful for us to think of the authors, instead of a single author, of any one film. (For discussions on the problem of authorship in the cinema, see the essays in the book edited by Caughie, 1981).
In order to try to solve the problem of authorship in film, we may want to say that it is the script or screenplay writer who is responsible for what is said in the film, as the shooting script is the ultimate ‘source’ of the film itself. But there are various interventions on the script before its final production as a film: for example, the producer, director, cinematographer, editor and actors all intervene in the making of a film. To add to the problem, films derived from other sources (such as those stemming from novels or plays) are also derived from the works of authors who are, in a sense, more ‘ultimate’ than the writer of the film script himself or herself.
In relation to the ‘author’ of a film, the director is usually given importance as the (ideologically-centred) ‘voice’ in the film. Although we can question this, there is interesting evidence to show that a film director, more so than the other persons involved in the making of a film, is at least partially comparable to the author of a literary work such as a novel or film. One can, for example, relate a particular director's films to each other in terms of tone, ideas, character types, etc., in spite of their derivation from different sources. This approach to cinematic narrative is related to what is known as ‘auteur theory’.
However, this view is limited for various reasons. Some of the reasons are listed below.
● It can argued for example, that this view applies only to important or major directors, as it is less easy to relate the films of minor or unimportant directors, who cannot be described as ‘auteurs’, to each other in terms of an ‘authorial’ tone, set of ideas, or the ‘authorial’ approach to characterisation.
● The director's control on the film may depend on the personality of the director: for example, whether he is strong-willed as a film director and wants to achieve complete control of everything which occurs in the film. Although the conception of the author as ‘God’ has also been applied to the film director, this view is relative to the forcefulness of the director’s control over the film.
● The director's control may also depend on his own aesthetic intent in relation to all his films, some films, or parts of certain films. But whether we can tie aesthetic intent to the sole control of the director, is a moot point.
● Another important factor which may affect the director's control is the studio or film company, which historically speaking, became an important factor in Hollywood since around 1924. It is generally acknowledged that for about ten years before 1924, directors in general had more control over their films than just about any other comparable period in the history of the cinema.
Not to be neglected in the discussion on the idea of authorship in cinema, is the cinematographer. The art of the cinematographer does have a definite impact on the films we see. The cinematographer may be as important as the director in the creation of a film. The late cinematographer Néstor Almendros for instance, considered himself to be as important a person in the production of a film as the director himself, and is not merely involved in filming, but to be sensitive to the narrative and its cultural nuances.
One reason for the neglect of the cinematographer with regard to the idea of the authorship of a film, may be due to the fact that he is not involved (or is not directly involved) with the linguistic aspect of the cinema. However, Metz's idea of image discourse (section 9 above), in which communication is carried out not only through language, but through images as well, may be applied here. In cinematic communication, the basically non-linguistic images in film may not only have a meaningful impact by themselves, but frequently enhance anything in the film conveyed more straightforwardly through language.
The cinematic actor is closer to the character of a film than the actor of a play to the dramatic character.
Cinematic actors have quite a different relationship with their audience when compared to the actors of a dramatic performance. One of the differences lies in the relatively closer relationship of cinematic actors to the authorship of a film than the actors of a dramatic performance. Another difference lies in the closeness of the concept of the character in film to that of the actor (which we will mention again below, see section 26), whereas there is a more clear-cut separation between the two in drama (especially in relation to classical dramatic texts). The difference or similarity of actor and character may be a philosophical point of difference between film and drama. However, this difference has its basis in the following corelated factors:
● The script (or book) of a play is valued or viewed differently from the script of a film, in the sense that the dramatic script may be available as a separate entity from the dramatic performance and it is valued in its own right, whereas this is less often the case with the cinematic script.
● The physical commodity usually available of a dramatic work (as mentioned in section 13 above) is the script (or book) of the play, whereas that of a film is the film itself and not its script.
As a corollary to the factors above, there are usually more than one possible performance of the script of a play, whereas there is usually (perhaps almost invariably) only one unique performance of the script of a film. If a film is remade, the whole script is usually re-written, and the script of the earlier film is merely used as a source or inspiration for the latter film. As a consequence, film actors should virtually be treated as among the ‘authors’ of the film, as they may determine characterisation in a film. However, dramatic actors, unless the playwright knows them, and writes his plays with them in mind, are nowhere near the authorial source of a play.
The star system is also a factor when considering the authorship of film, in the sense that the acting, and hence the character, is in a sense predetermined by who the film star is. One reason why some film directors prefer non-professional actors, is the fear that their actors, if they are famous film stars, will have some control on what is finally conveyed by them in the film.
The film star's control on what is said or done in a film is in a way inevitable: even if she is a passive actress, the film audience will expect her, due to her fame, to convey something in the film itself which they associate with her as an actress in other films, but which may actually be quite different from what the director, or the other persons associated with the making of the film, had in mind. In this sense, some films stars are almost archetypal figures, and one goes to a movie to see them, and not the characters in the movie. One in fact quite often expects the characters of a film to conform to the actors who play them, and not the other way round, which thus makes them effective co-authors of the film in which they perform.
In between the author and the narrator is the implied author (explained in 7.18), which in a sense, is – due to the difficulty of pinning down the unitary ‘author’ of a film – an even more useful and necessary concept than the corresponding concept in prose fiction. However, the concept of the implied author is slightly different here, as it includes the visual element: for this reason, Sarah Kozloff has called the implied author of film the image-maker, who is the moral/ideological agency of what is presented in the film (see her Invisible Story-Tellers, 1988: 44). As a photographic medium, it is also difficult to depict the inner consciousness of the characters in film (but see the discussion on this in Keith Cohen's Film and Fiction).
One difficulty with cinematic narrative is the concept of the narrator (see sections 22-5 below for a discussion of cinematic point-of-view). The narrator is less of a problem with written narratives, as the idea of telling a story is somehow inherently associated with narratives encoded in language. However, this is not the case with cinematic narratives, which have an important visual element in them, and are less concerned with the telling of a story in language. Thus, a pertinent question to ask in relation to cinematic narratives is whether the narrator exists in them at all.
The concept of the narrator appears difficult to sustain in film when the entire narrative is presented through the camera. It appears easier to sustain when there is voice-over narration. A pertinent question to ask here is whether the cinematic narrator exists only where there is voice-over narration and not when the entire narrative is presented through the camera.
One way out of the difficulty of sustaining the concept of the narrator in film is to adopt Kozloff's term above, the image-maker, in relation to the narrator of film, in which case there has to be a conflation of the cinematic implied author with the cinematic narrator. As a term in narrative theory, the term image-maker (cf. coffee-maker, ice-cream-maker), also has the advantage of being less anthropomorpic than the narrator (cf. the problem of anthropomorphising the camera mentioned earlier in another connection: see section 10 above).
Another way out of the difficulty is to turn our attention away from the agency of narration to the process of narration, in which case, the terms first-person and third-person narrators can be dispensed with, and respectively replaced with voice-over and camera-eye narration. The terms first-person and voice-over narration on the one hand, and third-person and camera-eye narration on the other, are, however, not exactly interchageable, as there are cases of voice-over narration coinciding with third-person narration in some films (see Kozloff).
While we are still with the narrator, we may note here that the only type of narrator in written narratives which has been related to cinematic narration, is the objective third person narrator: in spite of this connection, the concept of the narrator, strangely enough, seems to disappear once we try to transfer the same concept to film. Theoretically, the term narrator, for instance, cannot be used, without encountering some conceptual difficulties, even when a so-called written objective third-person narrative is directly used as a film script. The success of the reverse process from film to written literature – such as the camera eye sections of Dos Passos' trilogy, USA – is also debatable (Hock, 2005).
A voice-over narrator need not necessarily coincide with the first-person narrator. A voice-over narrator who is not a character in the story, and hence is a third-person voice-over narrator, is not only possible, but is occasionally found in fictional and non-fictional films. When the voice-over narrator is also a character in the story (henceforth, first-person voice-over narrator), there are of course some interesting similarities with the first-person narrator of written narratives (henceforth, written first-person narrator). There is, for instance, the creation of intimacy and irony in both written first-person and first-person voice-over narrations. Intimacy is created by the voice of a character in the film who is not merely a technical device or who is estranged from the story world, and who is, at least within the world of the narrative itself, of flesh and blood. Irony is generated by the fact that the personage narrating does not always or entirely perceive what is actually going on in the narrative. In cinematic narratives, irony may also be generated by the discrepancy between what is stated by the first-person voice-over narrator and what the camera reveals to the audience: the latter may often be more ‘truthful’ than what is said by the voice-over narrator. In fact, the potential for irony in first-person narratives is greater in film than in written (or linguistically encoded) narratives, as there is the inherent technical discrepancy between what the camera ‘sees’, and what the first-person voice-over narrator says. The sayer and seer of first-person voice-over narratives are often not located in the same body, and this results in the technically anomalous situation where the camera quite often looks at the first-person voice-over narrator, instead of looking from the voice-over narrator's physical perspective.
Voice-over narration is quite often viewed negatively, especially when it is not handled well. A similar view is in fact also found in response to the use of first-person narration in written narratives. The ‘crudeness’ or clumsiness of first-person voice-over narration may largely be due to the intrinsic technical dislocation of perspective and voice (something which does not occur, or is less obvious, in first-person narration in prose fiction). For these reasons, first-person voice-over narration for entire movies is quite often avoided. Camera-eye narration is preferred because it avoids the difficulty of the disjunction through the absence of the overall first-person narrator.
Voice-over narration has been traditionally used for four cinematic genres or sub-genres:
1) war films,
3) film noir, and
4) literary adaptations
With regard to literary adaptations, it is interesting to note that although voice-over narration is quite naturally used in adapting literary works with first-person narrators, this is not invariably the case. These works are sometimes converted to camera-eye narratives, or they may have third-person voice-overs which do not coincide with the voices of the first-person narrators of the original, perhaps in order to avoid some of the difficulties of first-person voice-over narration mentioned above.
Voice-over narration is now mainly used (according to Kozloff, 1988: 34)
1) as an instrument of nostalgia,
2) for parody, and
3) as a trigger of the film-maker's consciousness.
It has been noted, especially by feminist scholars such as Kaja Silverman, that voice-over narrators, especially in classical Hollywood films, are mainly male (see the qualifications to Silverman's view in Noel Carroll's Theorising the Moving Image ). If this is the case, it would be interesting to explore the reasons, which of course, go beyond the formal analysis of film and into general societal attitudes towards women and whether their voices should be in assertive or authoritative positions.
Voice-over narration does not merely occur in films with a single overall voice-over narrator. It also occurs in films which basically are camera-eye narratives. One reason for this may be the desire to get the best advantage from both types of narration. But there may be another reason: the film-makers want to present the inner thought processes of a character, which is better done with voice-over narration. Voice-over narration has some similarities with the soliloquies of Shakespearean drama, and in fact has given rise to the term voice-over soliloquy (i.e. a voice-over depicting the thought of a character). In fact, when a Shakespeare play is made into a film, the soliloquies usually make use of voice-over narration. which was believed to be first used early in the history of sound film with Hitchcock's 1930 film, Murder.
A point which is sometimes taken into consideration in film criticism, and which is a feature closely related to the analysis of prose narratives, is the disjunction between telling and showing. While conventional literary critics advocate, not always wisely, prose narratives which ‘show’ but do not ‘tell’, a complaint made against cinematic narratives (for example by Wolfgang Iser) is that they ‘show’ too much. A narrative written in prose, quite naturally – due to the nature of the medium – does not ‘show’ very much, as it does not say everything about a particular character or scene. This is quite unlike the cinema, which again, due to the nature of its medium, will inevitably ‘show’ more than what is usually available in written prose narratives. (In semiotic terms, cinema is more iconic and less symbolic (see 12.3-12.5) than more language-dependent written prose narratives).
The fact that cinematic narratives ‘show’ better but ‘tell’ less well when compared to written prose narratives, leads us to the other aspect of point-of-view: that connected to the question ‘who sees?’ rather than ‘who says?’. In this regard, the camera has a crucial role to play; we have seen how important the camera is in the disjunction between narrator’s and camera’s perspectives earlier in our discussion on cinematic narratives with overall voice-over narrators. The camera has a quite literal contribution to point-of-view: we view what the camera reveals to us. It does this in several ways. For example, the camera may present point-of-view
● through the use of the appropriate camera angle or visual composition of a particular scene;
● through appropriate focusing and depth of field;
● through the use of long shots or close ups for appropriate scenes;
● through camera movement, such as panning, circling, and moving from one character to another or from one part of a scene to another;
● through the use of crane shots, which involve the mounting of a camera on a crane, and moving the crane accordingly;
● through the use of wide-angle, telephoto and zoom lenses;
● through the use of light and darkness, and lighting technique (which may be determined by the technical capability of the camera, its lens, or film used).
We have mentioned one difference between cinematic and dramatic acting earlier: the actor playing the part of a cinematic character has a crucial role to play in our understanding of the character, whereas this is not usually the case in drama. A corollary problem has to do with one of the criteria for judging a film actor (as opposed to judging a dramatic actor), especially with reference to original films which are not based on other sources. The difference in criteria between film and drama may hinge on the unavailability of a written text on which one can base one’s judgment of a film actor’s performance. Unlike drama, a written text – on which we can judge whether the film actor has faithfully followed, deviated from, or taken interesting liberties with the author’s portrayal of a character – is not usually available for films. This criterion however, is sometimes applied to actors in films based on other sources, although this may be less applicable than in dramatic performance, as the question of faithfulness between source and film product in the portrayal of a character may be due more to the script-writer, director etc. than the actor.
The above problem has a close relationship with the problem of characterisation in film. Due to the close connection between actor and character in film, one may even ask the question of whether characterisation by itself is all that important in film. We may note here that a discussion on characterisation in film often ends up as a discussion on acting, and the two concepts are virtually inseparable when it comes to the cinema. The close relationship is not only seen in relation to some film stars who are associated with certain character types, but there are some less flexible character actors who are typecast, and who play the same character types in different films.
Another difference from dramatic acting arises from the possibility of close-ups or extreme close-ups on the actors' faces in film narratives. This results in what can be described as the ‘microscopic’ nature of film acting, where in relation to facial movements, the small gestures and twitches made by an actor may be seen by the film audience. However, the majority of the audience in a dramatic performance may miss these.
A practical consequence of film actors’ facial features being more clearly seen, is that unless they are heavily made-up, they must usually play their own actual age in their film roles, or at least roles that are near to their age. This is not the case in drama: even with slight make-up, young characters, for instance, can be played by much older actors, and this may be obvious only to the front-seat audience. In this regard, Ellen Terry has even said that ‘an actress cannot play Juliet until she is too old to look like Juliet’. The oldish actress may indeed pass off as Juliet on the stage, due to the audience's distance from her, but this is more difficult to accomplish in cinema, where it is not easy for the camera to keep its distance from the major characters.
Another ‘microscopic’ characteristic of film acting has to do with voice quality. Due to the presence of the microphone, a film actor, unlike a stage actor, does not need to speak with a loud voice. In a sense, the human voice has more potential in the cinema than in the theatre, as even whispers can be recorded by the microphone.
The voice of the actor leads us to another important aspect of the cinema, and this has to do with sound or its absence. As regards the sum-total of sounds in a film, the human voice may be less frequently present than in theatrical performance. There may in fact be stretches of total or virtual linguistic silence in sound movies, where dialogue or language per se is not needed, whereas this is usually not the case in drama, unless one is dealing with the works of more recent playwrights like Harold Pinter. (It may be argued that a reverse influence may be at work in relation to linguistic silence in modern drama, as verbal language in movies might have influenced playwrights or theatrical directors to introduce this feature into drama).
While the criteria for the judgment of film actors are still fresh in our minds, we may note here that silence does not reduce the importance of the actor in the cinema. In fact, what the film actor does (or does not do) while remaining silent, is quite often taken into consideration in one’s judgment of the quality of acting.
An important aspect of sound in cinema has to do with music, which, as it is an art form in its own right, is sometimes treated separately from the other aspects of sound.
There are various ways by which music is used in movies: it may for example,
● enhance the action,
● create a mood of suspense or expectancy,
● give a unifying effect to the film through the use of a musical theme with variations, or
● be associated with particular characters, actions, or scenes through the use of certain musical themes
There are of course movies which use a lot of music. Sometimes, the movie is a vehicle for a singer or musical band, in which case aesthetic considerations may be secondary. Usually more aesthetically satisfying are movies which are based on the lives of professional singers or performers, but who may be acted by professional actors.
Films as you know, may also be based on musical plays, which are also called musical films, movie musicals or more simply, musicals, when made into films. There are many examples of musical films, some of which were very popular with the general public. However, the general public's enthusiasm did not always translate to favourable reception by serious film critics or serious general students of film. The popularity of musical films has declined in more recent decades.
Musicals of course, are a cinematic genre or sub-genre (see sections 11.2 and 11.4 above, and chapter 9). Genres are important in film. Films belonging to particular genres are usually more highly valued than written literary works of the corresponding genres. Most films are more easily assigned to specific genres or sub-genres when compared to serious literary works. Each cinematic genre may have its own yardsticks, and ignorance of these yardsticks may lead to the unfair devaluation not only of of the film, but of the genre as a whole.
Commercial considerations are a significant factor in the cinema, and cannot be neglected in any discussion of cinematic narrative. I have mentioned earlier (section 11.17) that for much of the history of the cinema, the director did not have complete freedom in controlling the subject matter or even, of what is found in general in a film, as commercial considerations prevented many directors from doing what they wanted to do.
The producer has an important role to play in making commercial decisions. In this regard, the producer’s deliberations may not always be based on aesthetic considerations, but is quite often influenced by the anticipation of box office results. The producer, who may own, or has a share in the production company, or, if he does not, has to work in close consultation with the company, buys the rights or commissions the work, and is quite frequently in control of the film throughout.
The producer, in a way, adds to the complication in the conception of the author in film discussed earlier (see sections 11.15-11.20 above). We may note here that it is the producer or the production company which originally or ultimately employs the various persons involved in the making of a film.
© 2004–19; last revised: 06 August 2019.