Saturday, 18 February 2006

A post with meat upon its bones

Yesterday I finally finished sorting & packing posters for those who requested them & they are in the post. (You'll be relieved to hear I did not mail them from the local post office of slobbery doom. One last warning that they're a bit old and rubbish is probably in order, but at the same time, I hope you find something to like in your selection. Complaints may be forwarded to

This week I have been working on my chapter about the contrasting ways bodies under pressure are depicted in novel and film versions of the "same" narrative. My hypothesis is that movies depend on the involvement of real people's (actors') bodies in ways that novels do not, and back to this basic fact can be traced many of the differences between ways a novel and film tell a story - differences that adaptation theory traditionally ascribes to technical properties of the two media in a manner that completely elides the importance of actors in film. (This happens because adaptationists tend to see film as closer to literature than to theatre, when it's closer to the truth to see it as equally related to both.)

I like this chapter; one reason is that it discusses lots of stuff that is really just wrong. Dead Ringers is the main source of gross inspiration. Disgusting & horrible & unbelievable material. Disgustingness matters because when you read or see a disgusting story, to understand what the text is getting at, you need to draw on past experiences with your own body, a subject that everyone has expert knowledge of. To rise above boring and/or stupid (and not all texts want to move past that level), the text needs to get you to put your experience into the space in the story marked out by what the characters do and what happens to them. Impossible and/or unbelievable bodily feats also intersect with our knowledge about our own bodies, but in the other direction: the text needs to make you either set aside objections arising from knowledge that what you're seeing/reading cannot happen, or else it needs to give you some way of discharging that knowledge in a way that doesn't disrupt your engagement with the narrative.

So regardless of whether you're invited to release your bodily knowledge or to suppress it, both books and films have to work hard (and smart) to get you to get beyond the underlying knowledge that we're witnessing a representation and not something that's real in the same way as our guts and legs and bones and lungs and circulations are real.

The complication that really interests me emerges when you begin to consider how very different the thresholds are for literary texts and films - differently placed, and different in kind.

Bodies are an excellent catalyst for showing up the way the distinction between film and literature, when it matters, is culturally determined and historically fluid, because we know so much about what bodies are capable of and what the rules are about what should be done with them, and also because the star system makes recognition of actors’ real bodies an important part of the experience of film. One of my movies is based on a cryptic little story by Balzac which hinges on (or skirts around) a lost and solitary man’s relationship with a wild leopard. (It’s called Passion In The Desert.) The story implies sex; it talks a lot about caresses and embraces and how the leopard reminds the guy of all these women he used to know. It ends with the death of the leopard. The film based on this story is kind of awful: partly because it’s just not very good, but mostly because it butts up against rules about human/animal contact that are cultural in origin but nonetheless absolutely implacable. It doesn’t matter how insistently the movie cuts from the leopard’s face to the actor’s and back again, we’re never going to believe they’re really locked in each other’s “arms”. The idea of exposing a live actor to that much physical danger is not one we can contemplate without questions. And so we find ourselves fixating on the seams: noticing how the shots are composed to suggest physical closeness but never actually confirming that they share the same space at the same time. Once you engage in this kind of thinking the illusion falls to pieces. In the story it never came into sharp enough focus for that to be a possibility. The one shot in the movie where the man does lie down beside the leopard it is quite clear that the animal is under sedation, and the man, he is scared shitless! Not terribly sexy!

I wrote a lot more on this general subject then decided the blog was really not the best place for it. Perhaps later.

Body stuff is on my mind a lot at the moment, because of this chapter and I guess also because of the ongoing RU 486 debate. No doubt there will be more posts in this area before I get it out of the system.

Human leg steak, aka anatomical cross section, from here, via UFO Breakfast.


Hil said...

This relates to puppetry in interesting ways. For instance, bodily limitations can be broken with puppetry - magic can be seen to happen. Also in puppetry the audience keeps a kind of dual knowledge: that the body is not real, but one notionally accepts it as real, so you don't necessarily have to have realistic body to elicit the right emotional reponse. There is also a concept operating which has been called the 'uncanny valley', first thought about in relation to robotics, which indicates a drop in credibility as a representation of something like the leopard moves from stylized through to just-about real:

"The principle states that as a robot is made more humanlike in its appearance and motion, the emotional response from a human being to the robot will become increasingly positive and empathic, until a point is reached at which the response suddenly becomes strongly repulsive; as the appearance and motion are made to be indistinguishable to that of human being, the emotional response becomes positive once more and approaches human-human empathy levels."

-- Wikipedia - more detail here

Lucy Tartan said...

Thanks very much Hil. That uncanny valley thing is something I'm very glad to hear about. Dolls, dummies, & doppelgangers pop up in lots of the more self-reflexive film adaptations and it never even crossed my mind that there was a body of hypothesising associated with puppetry.

Just curious: do you have any particular take on Being John Malkovitch?

Anthony said...

I'm deeply ashamed to say my first thought on seeing the leg was how nicely marbled the bottom half is.

Hil said...

Sorry it's taken me so long to get back - I've been really busy. I really enjoyed 'Being John Malkovitch', and found it most intrequing, but I really need to watch it again, as it's all a bit hazy now. Lots of nice things about who is controlling who and so on, that fits in with the hypothosizing about puppetry.