Saturday, 14 February 2009

Not infodumps. Constellations. The infodump, as Todd VanDerWerff points out, may well be the single generic feature shared by all flavors of science fiction: You might find some infodumping in a Western or in a period piece, but for the most part, we know the rules those genres play by because those genres take place in our reality, just in the past . . . . To a large degree, the division between hard and soft [science fiction] often hinges on things like infodumps. The hard [science fiction] is often for the people who are really, really interested in the science part of the science fiction equation. The soft stuff skews more toward the fiction end of things and isn’t particularly concerned with plausibility much of the time. This strikes me as wrong in one crucial respect: the infodumps about which people complain occur at the outset of a work. They're presented as the technological enablers of the narrative to follow. They are exposition before the fact—before readers have any emotional investment in the characters whose narratives are enabled by the infodumped technology. No surprise, then, that people whose primarily invest in character or narrative find the lengthy technological preambles of hard science fiction off-putting. To label as infodump the exposition on the Battlestar Galactica episode "No Exit" is to be a little too literal. "No Exit" did "dump" quite a bit of "info" on its audience, but the information was not intended to make the narrative work, because it already does. You cannot have an infodump four seasons into a series: you can only have a revelation. The argument should be whether too much information was revealed too quickly, but what else were the characters meant to do? Naming an episode after Sartre's No Exit signals a forthcoming entrapment of the character's own devising. Their Hell will be the other people they're trapped with. But that's not where I'm headed with this post. I think the thematic parallels with Sartre's play are important—certainly significant is the implication that this is a Hell of their own devising, one in which they remain not by force or compulsion, but through fear of the unknown. (That all the characters begin by talking about what happened on Earth, only to become increasingly occupied with their own infighting seems an important parallel, even if I am being a bit literal.) What I want to focus on the effect on a viewer when almost 70 hours of thin-streaming history are followed by one of torrential exposition. On a certain type of reader/viewer, the result is little different than the cumulative effect reading Ulysses or Gravity's Rainbow or Infinite Jest; namely, this person feels like the night sky yearns to snap into constellations—he feels like the heavens look down on, disappointed, because some personal failing prevents him from discovering the order they contain. So what does this person do? If he's reading Ulysses, he maps Joyce's universe onto the tram-lines of William Martin Murphy in order to demonstrate that...
Little bit more on teaching The Dark Knight What's the point of cataloging film and comic conventions in a composition course? Students should leave my class knowing that the mechanics of a film or comic reveal the intentions of the mechanic. Am I doing an end-around theoretical objections to authorial intent? I certainly am—because I want to instill in my roomful of future rhetors that they need to pay attention to the effect their prose will have on their audience. I want to slow down the process whereby they make claims, and the best way to do that is to explain the joke. Consider the fundraiser scene in The Dark Knight. I start shortly before the Joker puts the knife to Dawes' throat. Here he is approaching her: It's a medium long shot with a slightly shallow focus. Viewers know who to focus on, but are also given a strong sense of the mise-en-scene. This frame belongs to a fairly long and unbroken tracking shot: Note how the camera moves back more slowly than the Joker moves forward, transforming the medium long into a medium shot: As the camera follows the Joker, the crowd slips off the frame—but we know what the mise-en-scene contains. The camera moves with the Joker until this moment: Now it swings to the left and begins to bring the crowd back into the frame. As the camera pivots the frame momentarily centers on Dawes before returning the Joker. The immediate intent is fairly straightforward: Nolan wants to keep the attention focused on the Joker. Viewers now must gauge how Dawes reacts by how the Joker or the crowd reacts to her reaction. The camera continues moving left until the entire crowd is back in the frame. Note that over the next three frames Nolan will show the crowd assembled behind the Joker in its entirety: For those shots the camera traces a circle around the Joker. The viewer attends to his face because the camera gravitates around him like the Earth around the sun. The camera moves behind Dawes's head and brings them into profile: At this point it begins to describe a circle around her instead of him. The effect is delicate if disorienting. Note that over these three frames Nolan shows the entire crowd behind her in its entirety: We now know who is behind her as well as him. Nolan again uses the profile shot to switch dance partners. The camera now circles the Joker again and again Nolan uses the attention on the Joker to scan the crowd behind him in its entirety: Why all the circling? The first reason is kinetic: a shot and reverse shot combination would have settled the action down by introducing a conversational rhythm. The second reason is temporal: once a director starts reversing shots the audience begins to experience time as a function of narrative. The first person says their say. The second person says their say. The first person responds. The second responds. I should note that this is a natural reaction...

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