Sunday, 20 February 2011

Reifying memory in Alison Bechdel's Fun Home Alison Bechdel's Fun Home fits neatly into the last third of my "Confessional Narratives" course for all the obvious reasons: it's intensely autobiographical; it's told from an emotional and temporal remove from the events narrated; those events are of indisputable significance to the life of the confessor; etc. In particular, it resembles Craig Thomspon's Blankets and Art Spiegelman's Maus in that its focus is on the narrator's relationship with someone particular; however, unlike Thompson's relationship with God or Spiegelman's with his father, Vladek, Bechdel's interested in a fundamental reconcilation with her closeted father. I'm not claiming that Spiegelman was uninterested in understanding his father better, only that his attempt was doomed to failure because the unknowable horror of the Holocaust made it impossible for him to either share that experience or even understand the gravity of its effects on his father, e.g. these non-consecutive panels from "And Here My Troubles Began": There is something non-universal about the way in which the Holocaust altered Vladek Spiegelman, and as much as Art attempts to divine the particular from the universal or vice versa, he never succeeds. The nightmare of history is such that his father's story can only ever be that: his father's story. The same doesn't logic doesn't hold for Bechdel's Fun Home, not only because the horrors of discovering you're gay aren't comparable to finding yourself in Aushwitz, but because Bechdel's lament is that her father, Bruce, didn't live long enough to experience life outside the closet. It's no coincidence that Bechdel has "a hallucinogenic memory" of accompanying her closeted father to retreive her mother from the city: The irony of this memory occupying an hallucinogenic space "a few weeks since the Stonewall Riots" in Bechdel's memory should be obvious. I'm not saying she's lying or even misremembering, only that she's making history meaningful in a way that's similar to what Vladek performed on the first-order and Art did on the second. The difference between her performance and Art's is that she's doing so in order to make sense of his life in a way Art could never duplicate. Again, not faulting anyone for anything here, merely acknowledging what Art himself does above: the inability to understand, however tenuously vicariously, someone else's experience will prevent you from ever sympathizing with or being able to offer anything but sympathy to this other person. That's not the case in Fun Home, which is less concerned with communicating the attempt to reach an inreconciable understanding than the act of coming to an understanding you can live with. Put in the starkest possible terms: Art fails to understand Vladek because he can't comprehend the Holocaust, whereas Bechdel tries to understand herself through her father's life and succeeds because the attempt is a thing in itself, e.g. the book's Proustian returns to Proust: Fun Home reifies memory via narrative, but it does so in a way that reminds readers that human beings aren't made of words. Granted, the above panel is about as word-specific as...
Check out that face! (Being lecture notes on the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode "Hush") After re-watching the infamous silent episode from the fourth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, "Hush," I am compelled to conclude that Joss Whedon loves him some tracking shots. Unless the camera is tightly framed on someone's face, it's either panning or tilting or both. If this were my only encounter with his work, I'd probably draw the conclusion that because the majority of the episode contains no spoken dialogue, Whedon felt the camera work had to be dynamic enough to sustain audience interest. But that's not the case: Whedon's camera is consistently active, only a bit hyper in "Hush." For example, when Buffy finishes her ablutions and enters the hallway, the camera pans with her: Note that as she passes it, she moves from a medium close-up to a close-up and back to a medium close-up. The reason for her occupying more and then less of the frame is that Whedon requires some space for this: That would be a student crying because she's lost her voice, but Buffy doesn't know that yet. Whedon allows this anonymous student to come in for a close-up: Then follows her down the hall: The camera's attention here is mimicking Buffy's curiosity, so as soon as she disappears, the camera whip pans back to our protagonist: The reason for keeping this in a single shot—besides the obvious one that Whedon always prefers tracking shots—is to create the impression that Buffy has had a realization. At this point, it consists of "something's wrong," or maybe the more innocuous "something may not be right," but the audience connects Buffy's attention to the anonymous student's flight via the tracking shot here. As noted above, the only time Whedon's not tracking is when he's tightly framing faces. That technique makes sense in an episode in which all the information about the characters' respective mental states is going to be non-verbal. In his excellent post on non-verbal facial cues in The Social Network, David Bordwell argues that the "intensified continuity" in modern cinema requires actors to "be maestros of their facial muscles and eye movements," and though "Hush" is an episode of a television show and not a film, the same applies here. For example, immediately after the above, Buffy enters her dorm and begins to "converse" with Willow: Because even shows like Buffy prefer some sort of realistic acting, this almost qualifies as over-doing it: this is intensified continuity intensified, but it remains naturalistic in the hushed context of the episode. The only way the characters can communicate is to over-act. Looking concerned no longer communicates being worried unless, as per the last frame above, that concern is exaggerated. (I could demonstrate that this dynamic is operative when Xander and Spike are conversing or when Riley's trying to enter the Initiative, but in the interest of space and bandwidth, just take my word for it.) In sum, Whedon is setting the audience up by having it pay closer attention to facial expressions than they otherwise would. Why...

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