This excerpt is from an academic, theoretical essay in Film Studies.
The essay in full is 27 pages, and it was published in a leading journal.
For one thing, the entities in a film that might communicate are rather harder to pin down than those in a novel. Since the Cahierists introduced the notion of the auteur, critics have been inclined to refer to the director as though he or she were the sole creative force behind a film. This usage has become, of course, shorthand—one cannot possibly list the hundreds of people actually responsible for creating a film. But auteurism does highlight our need to ascribe intentionality to someone or something, be it a director, a producer, or a studio. Because in film we have no single author, we create an entity—usually identified with the director’s name—to which we can attribute intention, the source of meaning. In order for us to receive a message, even a message as banal as “it’s a wonderful life,” there must be a “Frank Capra” out there somewhere, even if he is encased in scare quotes. Furthermore, when we say “Capra,” we can’t simply mean the man, as he was only one of many responsible for the film, and we can’t mean the narrating voice, as we might in a novel, because there isn’t one.
So are we left with the implied author? Is that the only agent left who can communicate with a film’s viewer? Seymour Chatman thinks not, as long as we agree that a narrator need not be human. If we describe films as if they do things, as if they have agency, Chatman suggests, we may as well ascribe that agency to a narrator. Definitions of cinematic narrators are too few to say there is a consensus, but the best is Chatman’s own: A film’s narrator is the combination of mise en scène, cinematography, editing, and sound. Other accounts are limited either to one of these—usually cinematography—or to acts of literal narration—such as voiceover or the reading aloud of letters. The virtue of Chatman’s broader definition is that it includes all the means by which a film tells a story, much as our definition of a novel’s narrator would include all of the means by which he or she tells a story.
Chatman’s definition of the cinematic narrator obviously relies upon a conventional communication model, with the real author, the implied author, and the narrator functioning as distinct entities. As the narrator of a film, though, is so clearly different from the narrator of a novel, not least in its having no persona, we might be forgiven for wondering whether this model is equally applicable to both media. And wondering such, we could do worse than consult Wayne Booth in the hopes that his distinctions regarding novels might shed light on films. Booth, of course, argues that the easiest way to establish the characteristics and locations of implied authors and narrators is to examine cases of irony. In an unreliable verbal narrative, specifically, the narrator does not speak “for the norms of the work,” which the implied author establishes and which the reader understands; the implied author winks at the reader behind the narrator’s back, as it were (158). These narrators, misaligned with their implied authors, misinterpret or misevaluate the events they relate. In order to construct a coherent narrative out of flawed data, then, the reader must be able to differentiate between the narrator’s voice and the agent behind it. We might suppose, then, that unreliable films will provide the most useful examples for differentiating between their agents.
In verbal narratives, there are of course various kinds of unreliable narrators, and James Phelan has recently described many of them: “Narrators perform three main roles,” he writes, “reporting, interpreting, and evaluating. … They may, therefore, deviate from the implied author’s views in one or more of these roles. … Unreliable reporting occurs along the axis of characters, facts, and events; unreliable reading (or interpreting) occurs along the axis of knowledge and perception; and unreliable regarding (or evaluating) occurs along the axis of ethics and evaluation” (50). In other words, narrators may misrepresent or fail to represent part of the story, misinterpret or fail to interpret part of the story, or misjudge or fail to judge part of the story. Phelan calls these six types of unreliability “misreporting, misreading, … misregarding—and underreporting, underreading, and underregarding” (51). One benefit of having these axes laid out is that we can speak more precisely about the different types of distance a reader finds between narrator and implied author, particularly as these many types of unreliability often work in tandem.
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