Transdisciplinary Challenges in Analysing Cinematic Representations of Character Interiority
University of Hamburg
Subjectivity in Feature Films
Looking at over a hundred years of film history, there seems to be a universal fascination of the medium with mankind's inner worlds of imagination. However, film-makers have developed rather distinct strategies to cinematically convey the realms of the psyche: The Dalí-designed, (pseudo-)Freudian dreamscapes in Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945) differ severely from Truffaut's alter-ego's cinematic black-and-white dreams in La Nuit Américaine (1972), the quirky, self-reflexive construction of imagination in La Science des Rêves (Michel Gondry, 2006) or Guy Maddin's childhood remembrance in My Winnipeg (2007). These films are distinct not only with respect to the different eras they were made in and the types of imaginations they represent, but also to the audio-visual composition of their subjective sequences, the meaning and imaginative qualia these scenes convey, the narrative functions they fulfil, and, hence, the effects they have on audiences.
Although film-scholarly discussions of 'cinematic subjectivity' have been almost as manifold, ranging from Hugo Münsterberg's psychological analogies between the medium and the mind in his 1916-book The Photoplay via Deleuze's idea of the film itself being a modus of thought or the transmedial adaptations of Genette's 1972-concept of focalisation to recent discussions of the so called "mind-fuck film" (Eig) and unreliable narration (cf. e.g. Liptay/Wolf, Helbig, Laass), the field is, in many ways, still disparate.
In narratological contexts, the study of character subjectivity does traditionally fall into the domain of the rather contested concept of focalisation, that in itself has been a theoretical battlefield since its introduction (cf. Niederhoff ý11-23). Far from any sign of agreement on what is meant by focalisation and related terms such as point-of-view and (mental) perspective, it comes as no surprise that little attention has yet been directed to how scenes of character subjectivity reflect particular aspects of the way characters perceive the world cognitively and emotionally - not only with respect to what they perceive and imagine (content information), but also how they go about it (aesthetic and aisthesis information) and in what particular way audiences are able to understand and relate to these 'experiential' depictions of imagination.
Unlike literary and other verbal narration, cinematic narration does neither operate on the basis of arbitrary connections of linguistic signs and semantic meaning, nor in terms of a default grammatical system when expressing personal or temporal perspective. Instead of assuming any kind of 'film grammar' equivalent to linguistic grammar, I therefore propose - following cognitivist and semio-pragmatic approaches - that audio-visual media refer to culturally manifested cognitive schemata and 'knowledge' of a given society when representing abstract, non-objective phenomena such as perception processes. Commonly shared ideas of the psyche, perception, and subjective experience are transformed into audio-visual concepts and narrative techniques and, thus, translated into audio-visual expressions. As Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson have shown, even new, seemingly innovative strategies of representation are informed by existing conventions of narration. However, they alter traditional forms of representation by adjusting them to contemporary standards of anthropological knowledge, technology and narrative culture. Thanks to the actuality and conventional continuity of these representations, audiences are in turn able to intersubjectively understand the meaning of cinematic subjectivity - precisely because of their socio-cultural knowledge, media literacy and "experiential background" (Caracciolo). An integrative approach to cinematic subjectivity should, hence, place the single media text in the context of historic conventions of representation, media literacy and technological possibilities, as well as anthropological, social and cultural discourses about the functioning of the human psyche in a film producing and film consuming society.
In this paper, I will very briefly conceptualise an analytic approach to filmic representations of subjectivity and introspection that is still a work-in-progress. While my thoughts in part rely on narratological concepts of perspective, focalisation and introspection, narrative theory is not the only point of reference. I will, thus, not only integrate Jens Eder's theoretical approach to fictional characters and their psyche, but also try to broaden the field of reference by stressing the necessity of transdisciplinary research when looking into the whys and wherefores of audio-visual representations of mental content - be they narrative or not.
Conceptualising Cinematic Representation(s) of Subjectivity
Bruce Kawin notes that episodes of character subjectivity in feature films present "the world as it unfolds to, and is determined by, the present-tense consciousness" (79) of the characters' minds. They present everything "what a character [...] thinks [... ,] simply the field of the mind's eye" (10) in contrast to the quasi-objective filmic reality as "mindscreen" (10). Their audio-visual appearance is, thus, highly affected by the characters' sensual perception, their supposed states of emotion and their mind. These kinds of representation can be explicitly, implicitly or ambiguously qualified as 'subjective' through a variety of visual or acoustic markers, voice-over, explanatory dialogue, textual inserts or other contextual framings before, during or after the incident - and are always (partial) approaches towards and adoptions of a character's perspective.
The concept of mindscreen has recently been revised by Markus Kuhn who further distinguishes independent "mental meta-diegeses" (151) that "as a whole, represent a character's dream, an illusion, a hallucination, etc. and do not show events that 'actually' take place in the diegetic reality" (152) from introspective sequences that, without changing the level of narration, show a character's subjective assessment of an event, which is, nevertheless, still clearly based on the diegetic reality. Kuhn calls the latter "mental projections" (151) and subsumes both under the umbrella term "mindscreen" (152; 191, fig. 17).
Both approaches have in common that they classify mental episodes as mediated through the (selecting) consciousness and perception of a character (Kawin 13; Kuhn 149-158): Kawin calls the remembering or imagining character a "narrator" (13; 55). For Kuhn, however, introspection is a form of internal focalisation (149) while he ascribes the telling to an autonomous narrator, responsible for all audio-visual material in the film that is not verbal language, the VEI (81-118, esp. 87-94; 149-158). It is important to note that Kuhn, albeit characterising them as internal focalisation, acknowledges that introspections are not only concerned "with issues of knowledge in a narrow sense but with different forms of conscious or unconscious thought and memory, emotions, pathological or delirious perceptual distortions as well as half-, un- and subconscious mental and cognitive processes." (149)
Kuhn, thus, deviates from his otherwise rather Genettean terminology and adapts an understanding closer to Edward Branigan who renders focalisation broadly as "an attempt to represent 'consciousness of'" (106) reflecting a relation between a character the narration and the audience. In Narrative Comprehension and Film he develops a continuous understanding of subjectivity that ranges from the spectators' attribution of agency and subject status (101) through unfocalised representations of characters to forms of external focalisation through a character in "semi-subjective" (103) shots that align audiences with a character, creating a shared space of experience (103) to internal focalisation, offering direct insight into the focalising character's mind and soul. He defines internal focalisation as the wide field from perception (e.g. p.o.v.-shots) to impressions (e.g. distorted p.o.v.-shots) to what he calls "'deeper thoughts' (e.g., dreams, hallucinations, and memories)" (103).
According to Kawin and Kuhn, however, introspective subjective perception must be clearly distinguished, from representations of visual or acoustic perception, e.g. the so-called 'subjective camera' (Kawin 6-12; Kuhn 122-133; cf. also Wilson 84-86): Although point-of-view and point-of-hearing can be part of the character's subjective interiority - e.g. if, in a memory flashback, the film shows exactly what the character has supposedly seen in the past from his or her spatial perspective - they are neither necessary nor sufficient criteria for any kind of introspection. In this sense, George Wilson considers 'mental viewing' a form of subjective perception, that is generally composed of multiple perspectives, because such perceptions are always imagined and differ from 'real' sensory perception (87). Detached from the realms of reality, representations of character interiority "provide us with the visual perspective defined by the character's private sensory manifolds" (87).
However, all of these approaches fall short of answers to the question of how, i.e. with what particular means, a subjectivation of the audio-visual imagery can be achieved and in what way they are subsequently being processed and understood by audiences. To this effect, and rather interested in questions such as how spectators engage with and understand fictional characters, in what way they partake in or identify with a character's world view and emotions, Jens Eder, introducing ideas from analytical philosophy, defines the mental perspective as the "mental relation of a conscious being to the intentional objects of its mental processes and conditions" (584). In his model of mental perspective, he goes on to distinguish five subtypes of perspective: As "perceptual perspective" (585), he summarises aspects of sensory perception, the whys and wherefores of what a person (or fictional character) sees, hears, smells, tastes etc; the "epistemic or knowledge perspective" (586), includes a person's (or fictional character's) knowledge, reasoning and judgement; the "evaluative perspective" (586) encompasses opinions, norms and values; the "motivational perspective" (586) expresses a person's (or the character's) wishes, volition, and motivation; and the "emotional perspective" (586) describes his or her feelings, sensations and moods concerning objects, other characters or a given situation.
Cinematic narration attempts to transform the complex interactions of the internal network of perspectives into salient and intersubjectively comprehensible external forms of representation:
Processes of the psyche internally represent an object from a certain mental perspective; texts or semiotic processes depict an object externally and intersubjectively through a representational perspective. The latter can be termed the medial perspective of representation and be distinguished from the mental perspective. (Eder 590)
As a fictional character's subjective imagination, mental representations are already perspectivated in several respects and subsequently become additionally perspectivated through medial representation. In effect, Eder's definition of medial perspective implies that certain audio-visual strategies of cinematic representation are employed precisely because they refer to specific and distinct aspects of perception and are, in part, transformed into an intersubjective (re-)experience in the reception process. The medial perspective of representation on the one hand refers to the film-makers' beliefs concerning the potential audience. On the other hand, the often complex network of medial perspective(s) of representation highly determines the range and intensity of perspectives spectators can possibly engage in regarding the characters and their experience, the fictional world, or the film-makers - although these spectator perspectives and the consequential reactions, of course, are in no way programmed to match the film-makers' intentions.
Eder's typology seems particularly suited to describe complex film sequences that depict one or several aspects of a character's mental perspective through media representation. As perspectivity is a multidimensional phenomenon, films do not only represent information concerning the content of their characters' imaginations ("What is dreamed / remembered / hallucinated?"), but also salient qualities of the imagining experience itself ("How is something dreamed / remembered / hallucinated?"), thereby conveying aspects of what it feels like to be in the character's shoes. In contrast to most narratological frameworks, Eder's approach does, thus, allow for more detailed, phenomenological analyses of a character's visual and auditory perception and his or her situational experience. Moreover, thanks to its explicit integration of the medium's representational boundaries and metaphoric abilities, it is not restricted to analysing the acoustic and visual perspective but also applicable to cinematic approaches to olfactory, tactile and other sensory perception - such as the visualisation, auditorialisation and narrativisation of taste, smell and touch in Tom Tykwer's Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006) or Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited (2007).
Two Examples: Smultronstället and Deconstructing Harry
To demonstrate the use of an integrative and transdisciplinary approach to character subjectivity, I will briefly discuss two examples in comparison. The first scene is the famous memory sequence from Ingmar Bergman's Smultronstället (1957), where the main character Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström) visits his family's summer house as an old man and is reminded of his first love Sara's (Bibi Andersson) rejection. The second scene is taken from Woody Allen's Deconstructing Harry (1997), where the protagonist, writer Harry Block (Woody Allen), combining different types of imaginations, is imagining the real and a fictionalised version of his first encounter with his ex-girlfriend Fay (Elizabeth Shue) in the elevator. Both films are particularly suited to discuss differences in their representation strategies, because Allen's movie is loosely based on Smultronstället. Both scenes furthermore deal with similar content - the protagonist's memories of their lost loves - but highlight, as the analyses will show, quite different qualitative aspects of the remembering process.
Combining more traditional approaches from narratology with Eder's integrative model of perspective and the aesthetic as well as historical interests sketched out above, the following analyses will basically concentrate on five aspects of representing subjectivity:
1. salient transition markers between the 'diegetic reality' and the subjective representation;
2. distinct levels of narrating subjectivity and imagination that may interact or not, be presented in linear order or simultaneously;
3. different types of imaginations (memories, dreams, hallucinations etc.) that may be represented similarly or in a distinct manner, and may be consistent or inconsistent with real-world-concepts of imaginations (also cf. 5.);
4. audio-visual aesthetics of representing interiority that distribute salient information about their epistemic, evaluative, motivational, and emotional impact and experiential quality for the character;
5. cultural frames and concepts that are reflected by these multidimensional representations of subjectivity as communicative artifacts, joining film producers and recipients in an intersubjective understanding of (certain aspects of) subjectivity.
Concerning the transition markers, Smultronstället, on the one hand, from our contemporary perspective, seems like a 'memory overkill': There are contextual markers such as dissolves, match cuts, a tracking shot towards Isak Borg's face, as well as a distinct musical motif; descriptive markers such as a voice-over explaining the memory-dissolve and dialogue explaining the double-time structure of the memory; and metaphoric markers such as a change of weather in retarding shots of the sky. On the other hand, Deconstructing Harry offers little more than a subtle hint in the dialogue: "I was looking at my last book, at the part where we met.". Although the film also sometimes uses conventional tracking shots towards the protagonists face, these are not necessarily employed dependably.
With respect to the levels of narration and their degree of interaction, Smultronstället offers instances of voice-over narration - that, however, only mark the transition and do not narrate what happens 'inside' Isak's memory - as well as a visually represented mental world that Isak projects his present self into, although he cannot interact with the mentally re-constructed Sara. In addition to the memory sequences, the film also depicts dreams that are distinctly marked contextually, where interaction with the dream personnel is possible. Deconstructing Harry is more complex: There are sequences that are completely fictitious within the realms of the story, and sequences that are fictionalised memories, both of which are sometimes accompanied by Harry's voice-over and extra-diegetic music. But there are also standard memory flashbacks wherein Harry, at times, even prospectively foreshadows a later fictionalised narration of the incident. Moreover, the film offers metaleptic "mental projections" (Kuhn 151), when Harry meets his fictional alter ego at a fairground, directorial flashbacks (Kawin 16) distributed via TV, and imaginary fantasy worlds that Harry projects himself into and where he is able to interact with the imaginary personnel. In short, the degree of interaction between different levels of narration and representation is much higher in the contemporary film.
Aesthetically, Smultronstället's memory sequences are designed lightly-coloured with sunshine, over-exposure, and a change in the whole black-and-white-palette. In conjunction with that, the idea that the memory images become clearer than reality, is explained explicitly by the protagonist's voice-over. We might therefore conclude that memories, in Smultronstället, are better informed about the past reality than the character himself - to him, they have epistemic value. However, as the changes in the visual spectrum indicate, Isak's memories also seem to 'highlight' and intensify what happened at that particular time in the past - they not only convey factual knowledge that becomes 'clearer' as he remembers, but also unravel an emotional truth that, as the story later confirms, provide Isak with explanatory insight on his search for identity. In Deconstructing Harry the different levels of imagination seem to be depicted quite realistically, although, there is a change of personnel and names in the auto-fictional sequences. In some other scenes, the fictionalised memories are also subtly heightened - e.g. women are depicted more attractive than their counterparts in reality and sexualised by certain point-of-view-structures, the mise-en-scène, and montage. It is exactly this confrontation of different types of imagination that is at first confusing and disorienting for spectators, mirroring Harry's own quarrels with himself not being able to discern fantasy and reality: In terms of the plot, Harry's autofictional imaginations which overshadow an objective access to the past, most of the time, differ severely from those of other people around him. Erratic, fragmenting and repetitious editing further emphasises and imitates Harry's own conflicting mental and experiential perspective that not only characterises the sample scene which cross-cuts frequently between the different versions of the event, but runs throughout the whole film.
How do these forms of intersubjectively 'communicating subjectivity' finally reflect distinctive ideas on imagination? In Smultronstället memories redistribute the past and, thus, seem to tell us - as well as the remembering character - a version of 'what really happened', offering not only epistemic but also emotional and motivational insight to both, the character himself and the spectators. Memories are, however, not to be confused with the present reality, as they cannot be changed by the present consciousness of the rememberer but seem autonomous from and imposed on him- or herself. This is also stressed by the contextual markers which emphasise - rather than neutralise - the gap between memory and reality. Since the film is a repository of transition markers for subjective perspectivation, it is noteworthy that even conventionalised cues to subjectivity convey qualitative aspects of real-life remembering and imagining processes: Match cuts point to the associative structure of mental activity, acoustic signals and dissolves mark a rite-de-passage that unquestionably leads from reality to memory - from the outside world into the realms of the mind's multisensory interior perception, as the carefully approaching tracking shot specifies. Memories, Smultronstället moreover suggests, cannot only be narrated and experienced through seemingly staged reenactments, but are explicitly considered imagery, and hence, believed to be perceived visually - which is, as I have argued elsewhere (Reinerth, "Image-Memory"), one common (metaphoric) conception of the remembering process itself. In contrast to memories, the dreams in Smultronstället reflect the protagonist's fears and crises, and it is mainly the dream sequences that Thomas Koebner refers to, when he assigns Bergman's film the label of a "second surrealism" (33).
In Deconstructing Harry, wishful and nightmarish imagination, artistic fiction and memories are not so easily separated. Here, remembering is first and foremost a matter of narration, that in itself seems uttered and filtered by a character narrator. Memories are furthermore characterised as being unreliable, incomplete and possibly containing fictional elements - an idea that is emphasised by the protagonist's artistic profession and several references to fictional media throughout the movie. The autofictional imaginations in Deconstructing Harry are highly predetermined by the character's emotional state, and lead to interpersonal conflict when confronted with other versions of reality. They offer valuable clues to Harry's emotional and motiviational perspective, his (confused) self-perception and emotional appraisal of the remembered events. However, most 'distortions' in Deconstructing Harry are solely contentual, i.e. matters of what happens and what is shown. In fact, especially the memory scenes have a realistic audio-visual aesthetic that bears great resemblance to the way the diegetic reality is represented, contrasting Smultronstället's emphasis on qualitative changes in perspective. Constructivistically speaking, there is no experiential difference between imaginations and reality, the fictionalised and real versions of his world - to Harry, they all 'feel' real and confusion arises only because different versions of world-experience - or alternate storylines - collide. What we remember, however the film suggests, reflects our needs, wishes, and crises as Freud's "screen memories" (529-554) relate to the emotional quagmire underneath that need to be 'deconstructed' and sorted out in psychotherapy.
Preliminary Conclusion: Towards a Transdisciplinary Approach
The analyses have shown that films approach the challenge of representing subjectivity in different ways. It could be observed, that (some) contemporary films have developed more elaborate and / or less obvious strategies of representation over the course of film history, reflecting a jointly changing level of sophistication amongst audiences. In fact, in this regard, it could be argued that the general level of media knowledge has improved only recently, because films have put the mind and its stories on display most frequently during what David Bordwell has called the "Newest Hollywood" (Bordwell 74). Moreover, the analyses give reason to believe that films at least implicitly refer to certain concepts of memory and imagination through their formal aesthetics and narrative strategies that fulfil essential functions in the reception process, because they serve as intersubjective points of reference for both, film-makers and spectators alike. It is this relation between ideas lingering in cultural discourse, the sciences, folk psychology, and common sense on the one hand, and the making, viewing and understanding of those phenomena in audio-visual media on the other hand, that is most interesting on a transdisciplinary level.
As audio-visual communication relies on the premise that intersubjective comprehension is possible, film-makers, in representing subjectivity and imagination, presumably refer to socially and culturally relevant and commonly shared beliefs about the functionality of the mind. Hence, through the employment of certain stylistic devices and narrative techniques that point to popular beliefs or experiences of perception, cognition, and emotion, they model representations of subjectivity partly after real-life concepts of subjectivity. Thereby assuring intersubjective accessibility and informed communication about phenomena as seemingly individually distinct and as scientifically abstract as experiences and processes of the mind. Assuming that every model or idea - and, thus, every representation referring to a concept of the human mind, introspection or subjectivity - also implies a particular approach to the world, the cinematic compositions of these sequences, then, do not only guide the reception of imaginary sequences, but also refer to underlying concepts of mankind and its mental abilities - on the part of film-makers, audiences and their cultural context.
This is not to say that film-makers must always be consciously aware of these transformation processes, because as part of the historic society they live in, they are as culturally and socially predisposed as their potential audiences and, hence, - knowingly or unknowingly - operate with the same or equivalent concepts of the human mind. However, a look at some statements by film-makers indicates that the quasi-intuitive transformation of individual and biographic experience, the use of film historic knowledge and the adaptation of its evolving means of signalling subjectivity, or conscious and detailed analyses of the phenomena in question play an important role in finding 'appropriate' means of representing subjective imagination and introspection. As I have argued elsewhere (Reinerth, "Spulen" 53-54), however, no simplistic one-to-one equations can follow from these assumptions. Not only do interpretations and specifications of a single concept - say, memory - differ in theory and amongst different groups of people. One should also bear in mind that film-makers, however well informed they might be, most of the time, have not subscribed to any dogmatic agenda of presenting subjectivity as defined by one and only one belief or theory.
Due to the preliminary state of my work, I could only sketch out some aspects of subjective representation that constitute relevant connection points for further transdisciplinary research. There is, however, much more work to be done with regards to an integrated, transdisciplinary approach to cinematic representations of subjectivity. One of the most pressing necessities is, as I hope to have pointed out, a comprehensive model of cinematic subjectivity that accounts for the narrative structure as well as the phenomenological qualities of subjective representation. Another issue to be considered is how commonly known (narrative and non-narrative) models of mental processes, subjective imagination and self-narration as proposed frequently by psychology and psychoanalysis as well as transdisciplinary memory and identity research are integrated into the cinematic representation of subjective perception and imagination. Related to this is the question in what way cultural contexts are interwoven not only with the telling, but also the understanding of stories and their specific strategies of representation. In turn, it should be of interest to an interdisciplinary cultural narrotology, how audio-visual aesthetic and narrative structures of popular media inform and frame widely held concepts of how our imagination works - that it is 'telling us stories' about ourselves, our past and future, dreams and wishes.