Wednesday, 05 January 2011

"Confessional Narratives" Syllabus By request, here's the meat of my "Confessional Narratives" syllabus. The standard caveat applies. I'll post the "Slow Horror" syllabus after I think of a better name for the course tomorrow and address the comments in the Fight Club post when I throw together my lesson plan for Thursday's class. The confessional narrative is not, strictly speaking, a medium (film, books, television, etc.) or a genre (romantic comedies, action movies, horror films, etc.). It is a mode; that is, it is less a kind of story and more a way of telling a story. In this class, we will examine works in the confessional mode in an attempt to define what features and characteristics belong to it. At the beginning of the quarter—which would be now—you will have to take my word that the works we will study are in the confessional mode; by the end of the quarter, I fully expect, and will in fact be disappointed if you don't challenge the assumptions on which my selections were based. The most salient element that the works you will encounter in this class share is that they are, in their own way, autobiographical; however, as autobiography is a genre, not a mode, it is possible for works that are not autobiographical to be written in the confessional mode. (We will be reading one such work, Daniel Clowes' Ghost World, at the end of the quarter.) The reason for studying this mode should be obvious: American culture, at this particular historical moment, is obsessively confessional. Be it Facebook and its ethos of “pics or it didn't happen” or a Tiger Woods press conference-cum-therapy session or films and television series “based on a true story,” Americans crave the kind of information that was once only shared in close quarters. In order to discover why that is, we must first understand how these narratives work; that is, we must figure out how they move us before we can discover why they do. To that end, we will be learning about rhetoric, a word so important to this class it must be bold. Rhetoric entails more than ethos, pathos and logos—the three elements which you likely learned in high school—it refers to all the techniques that an author or auteur uses to make his or her message appeal to a particular audience. In order to understand why a graphic novel appeals to an audience, we must first understand the rhetorical devices particular to it: panel transitions, word-picture relations, the visual vocabulary of film, etc. Similarly, in order to understand why a film appeals an audience, we must first understand the rhetorical devices particular to it: focal length, angle of framing, lighting, etc. We will devote the first few weeks of this quarter learning the terminology associated with both the comic and filmic mediums, then apply that knowledge to other works for the remainder of it. Texts: Fight Club (film) Blankets (graphic novel) Maus (graphic novel) American Born Chinese (graphic novel) Ghost World (film and...
Blowing up slowly. I put the word "slow" in the title of the course with the unsatisfactory title because it's defining feature of menace: if something is stationary, it's unthreatening; if something is celeritous, it's frightening. For something to be menacing requires pacing. Tension does not "build" in films: it must be built. Moreover, like all well-built things, its construction must be deliberate and methodical, and those qualities translate in film as a slow pace. I'm employing "building" as a metaphor here because 1) everyone knows about Rome, but more importantly, 2) it allows me segue neatly into a conversation about the relationship of space to pace (about which more shortly). All of which is only to say that because I'm claiming slowness to be an essential quality of a mode of horror, I need to quantify it; that is, I need to define what it means, mechanically, for a film to be slow. Where better to turn for such a definition than to a filmmaker universally acclaimed for that quality? So then, why is Michelangelo Antonioni's Blowup considered such a slow film? One element of slowness is going to be shot length—or "average shot length," to be more precise. Generally speaking, a film comprised of a single long take will feel longer to an audience because it is not being provided with new and novel visual information, whereas a film comprised of countless rapid cuts will provide so much new and novel information that the audience feels it lacks the time required to process it, thereby making the experience of the film seem shorter in duration. According to Yuri Tsivian's cinemetric database, the average shot length in Blowup is between 10.7 and 11 seconds long; however, that number is neither representative of Antonioni's larger corpus (e.g. La Signora Senza Camelie clocks in at 55.6 seconds) nor the film itself (many of the quick shots responsible for that time are between different photographs being compared). I would quantify that mathematically, but my doctorate is in English and the bylaws prohibit me from doing so. Another element of filmic slowness is the use of multiple establishing shots, which in aggregate have the same effect on pacing as aspect-to-aspect panel transitions in comics; that is, by presenting multiple perspectives on the same very large tableau, the audience can't simply assume that the establishing shot is establishing a location, and must perforce start to think that the sequence is attempting to define a mood. In Blowup, these shots are tied, albeit loosely at first, to the plot. So we have this building: Which is about to be invaded by mimes: The mimes tool around the plaza, then exit their vehicle and run around like mad: In short, the establishing shot, which is meant to show "the spatial relations among the important figures, objects, and setting in a scene," is instead invaded for a moment and then exited. It establishes, then, not the scene but the ambivalent attitude of the characters to the "important figures, objects, and...

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