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March 2002, Week 2


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Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Laura Jean Carroll <[log in to unmask]>
Fri, 15 Mar 2002 10:47:41 +1100
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Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
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Clearly, I've not explained myself properly.  I shall now attempt to do so.

"The Usual Suspects, Fight Club and Sixth Sense involve explanations that
"cheat" ???
C'mon: That's just ... wrong."

First, I wanted to let Jane Mills know (because I thought it might be of
some tangential interest to her) that the script for 'Adaptation' contains a
pretty pointed criticism of movies that establish a particular world, a set
of premisses, a mode of narrative/dramatic coding, and do not violate the
contract thereby made with the audience until the last ten minutes or so of
screen time.  Then they introduce a new element which undercuts everything
that has gone before, and cuts it off at the foundations.  In 'Fight Club'
this is the revelation that Brad Pitt and Edward Norton are
different/separate aspects of the same personality who inhabit the same
body.  The movie just tells you that this is so - it doesn't give you time
to think back over everything you have seen before & thought you understood.
  It doesn't allow you to think about why it has to be that way.  And I do
not think the film ever gives the audience any of the tools it might need to
think about these two stars as 'one person.'  Similarly, in 'The Sixth
Sense', the film establishes that the dead people Haley Joel Osment sees are
pallid & throw up everywhere.  But Bruce Willis is exempted, and instead of
explaining why, the film rather patronizingly assumes or forces our consent.
  ('The Others' is even more coercive in this regard.)  In all these
respects the dice are loaded: the film holds all the cards.  Ok, 'cheat' is
too compressed a word for what I am getting at, but what you say here, Drew,
about sums it up.

" "cheating" suggests these films employ total contrivances, inconsistent
with the whole filmic structure (when understood in their entirety), or
inventions out of left field, to resolve themselves."


"Told in another way, or from another perspective, but with all the
narrative and formal properties exactly intact - absolutely nothing added or
subtracted - and these narrative would be as straightforward as anything
else on the screen. No one would have any trouble following every nuance."

I'm afraid I don't understand at all how one can ever tell a story 'another
way' and at the same time maintain 'all the narrative and formal properties
exactly intact.'  However, that is the kind of false reasoning that films
like 'The Usual Suspects' trade in.  The final revelation spells it out that
Spacey's character is a wilfully unreliable narrator.  Once you take that on
board, I don't think you can believe in or rely on anything else in the
entire movie.  So we are left with a story that while it was playing was
intriguing and coherent, but in retrospect, completely untruthful: this goes
completely against what we feel about the reality (or plausibility, if you
prefer) of what's depicted on film.  That's not the problem: the problem is
that in return for giving up our illusions the film gives us - nothing
(except maybe that Kevin Spacey is shifty, and we knew that already.)  Hence
the temptation to go away and 'reconstruct' a classical narrative from
'Suspects', 'Memento' and the like.  But the fact is, nothing in a film, or
any other fiction for that matter, can exist in any other form than the one
we have.  It could not happen another way without becoming also a different

I do know that many people feel the exact opposite about these kinds of
movies.  But to return to the original point of this thread, I agree with
Jane Mills that such movies are 'incomprehensible', because there is nothing
we are invited or permitted to comprehend.

Laura Carroll

English Program
La Trobe University

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