Today I attended the third seminar of the research seminar series. Dr. Barry Monahan, film studies lecturer for the School of English University College Cork, presented his paper on two of Lenny Abrahamson’s films in a unique fashion that was witty, entertaining, educational and mentally stimulating for his audience. Although I had heard of Lenny Abrahamson before, I don’t recall having viewed any of his work before so this was a first for me. However, Monahan’s articulate lecturing style with his excellent use of visual media made it easy for anyone unfamiliar with Abrahamson to follow.
Monahan commenced by contextualising the topic of his paper and discussing the theorisation of contemporary Irish films. He maintains, however, that the history of Irish film is embedded in writing history, which may be defined as historiography. This concept is divided into the “aesthetic side and the cultural context” (Monahan). Monahan apologies, before proceeding with presenting his paper, for the “structural separation” in his work because what he is dealing with are “structurally dense stuff”.
Monahan even included how the idea for his paper originated. He said the idea came to him while he was on a train in Belgium, and one of the child passenger’s reaction to an approaching tunnel got him thinking about “the way we repeat our experience” (Monahan), the relationship between train and cinema, and the redefining relationship between space and time. The humorous anecdote made an instant connection between him and his audience, and thus guaranteed our attention for the rest of the seminar. However, it also served as a platform to discuss previous representations of trains in cinema such as the train driven towards the audience in the Lumière Brothers’ Arrival of A Train At La Ciotat (1895).
The relationship between train and cinema may also be seen in Georges Méliès’ Voyage à Travers L’Impossible (1904)
What Monahan is focusing on in his paper is the mode and way film articulates its perceptions, which becomes a “unique silent linguistic matter”. He says, “Like human perception, film acknowledges its environment by saying it and by saying nothing.” This is also bound up with the debate involving the relationship between author and film that questions implied authors, focalisation and perceived authors. Monahan contends that film articulates its perception of reality through “a box with a hole in the front and film passing in front of it”. This box is comparable to our brains because it is recording the world in a similar fashion.
The concept of perception, how we perceive the world or phenomenology I find extremely interesting as I studied this in the philosophy and psychology modules I did for my undergraduate degree. Merleau Ponty defines perception as the “primordial operation of which impregnates sensible being with a meaning, and which all logical mediation as well as psychological causality presupposes.” (qtd. in Young 1). The fact that my subjective experience of the world is determined by my understanding of it is significantly relevant in understanding the mechanics of interpreting film, literature, music and art, which is what I am expected to do on a daily basis as a Master’s student. For example, my perception of X may be slightly different to my friend’s perception, but it may be completely opposite to the perception of a Matsés Indian of the Amazon. Certain perceptions vary from culture to culture, but it is interesting how the majority of our perceptions are universal and cross-cultural. It is in this sense Monahan suggests that film “grabs consciousness and replicates it”, but it is replicated in a manner that achieves collective understanding.
Having said that, Monahan notes that this process is dialectical because it captures the world but it adds meaning to that capturing. Roger Daniel Franton argues that this process actively puts meaning in there because of the “conscious ordering of reality it observes” (qtd. in Monahan). Therefore, due to its design, mechanics and nature the filming apparatus is going to capture the world in a certain way that itself contributes meaning.
Monahan notes that this must be differentiated from “a live experience” as opposed to a “process”, which is interlinked with authorship. For example, in reality television “authorship remained invisible” (Monahan). When characters in a reality television show look at the camera the transcendental experience is broken for the audience.
On the other hand, Christian Metz introduces the idea of an implied author. Metz describes this as follows:
“The impression that someone is speaking [in a narrative] is not bound to the empirical presence of a definite, known or knowable speaker but to the listeners’ spontaneous perception of the linguistic nature of the object…The spectator [of a narrative film] perceives images that have obviously been selected (they could have been other images and arranged (their order could have been different). In a sense, he is leafing through and album of predetermined pictures, and it is not he who is turning the pages but some “master of ceremonies,” some “grand image-maker” (who before being recognised as the author, if it is an auteur film, or, if not, in the absence of an author) is first and foremost the film itself as a linguistic object … or more precisely a sort of “potential linguistic focus” situated somewhere behind the film, and representing the basis that makes the film possible.” (20-21)
An implied author is comparable to a divinity that we simultaneously acknowledge is in control but we deny that someone is in control.
Monahan advances his argument by discussing narrative beats. Narrative beats involve “a heightened story-moment such as a significant escalation of action or changes in its direction; or render plot points essential to the story.” (Proferes 15) This can be achieved through staging, camera and editing, and as Monahan says beats “may operate without recourse to language”, but it is the ‘absence of required language rather than the absence of language itself.” Cinema without narrative beats, therefore, not only requires greater audience attention, but they also impart a significant amount of trust on its audience. As Monahan humorously observes, “we don’t expect the audience to go ‘what happened?’ when the screen turns to black at the end of a film.”
Monahan gives a hypothetical example of the purpose of utilising narrative beats by referring to the action movie genre that usually contains a plot about the world being destroyed, and contains three characters comprising of a nerdy character, a hero character and an authority character, such as the President of the United States. Each character effectuates the transition of the carefully set up narrative beats. Therefore, the audience is guided through the course of the narrative by these beats.
Abrahamson, on the other hand, disrupts linear narrative beats by distorting cause and effect in Adam and Paul for comic effect. Monahan shows a film clip of Adam and Paul lying on a mattress in a field, but Adam is glued to it.
The first narrative beat of Adam being stuck to the mattress must occur in order to lead to the bench moment with the Bulgarian.
In this shot, there is a moment of character revelation because Adam and Paul think the man sitting on the bench is Romanian (ironically, the actor who played the role is actually Romanian), but he tells them he is from Bulgaria. Abrahamson chose Bulgaria because of the title of its capital city and it is also where Adam’s jacket is made, which leads to “a heavily set gag line pay-off” (Monahan). Adam questions the Bulgarian why he is here in Ireland. The Bulgarian says “cos I had to leave Sofia” and Paul responds by saying “Alright…is she pregnant like?” (Adam and Paul). Abrahamson employs “sequential cause and effect and ordered stacking” in order to justify what happens earlier in the film. In Garage, however, Abrahamson moves away from this filming strategy and this is evident from when the narrative runs ahead of the protagonist Josie.
Monahan concluded his seminar with a few clips from Garage to emphasise the transition Abrahamson makes from utilising narrative beats in Adam and Paul to their absence in Garage. The floor was then open for questions or comments on the topic. Dr. Éibhear Walshe asked Monahan why did Abrahamson make the transition in the second film Garage? Monahan replied by saying that it was “a natural transition” for Abrahamson. It also involved the circumstances of the story and character development of the film, and the development of his cinematic style.
Consequently, this seminar provided me with very beneficial knowledge that is applicable to my study of American film because it has made me more vigilant of cinematograph’s mechanics, and how narrative beats or their absence affect one’s perception and interpretation of one’s narrative experience.
Metz, Christian. Film Language: A Semiotics of the Cinema. Trans. Michael Taylor. New York: Oxford UP, 1974. Print.
Monahan, Barry. “The Phenomenological Narrative Shift between Lenny Abrahamson’s Adam and Paul and Garage.” Natl. U of Ire., Cork. 03 Nov. 2010. Lecture.
Proferes, Nicholas T. Film Directing Fundamentals: From Script to Screen. Massachusetts: Focal P, 2001. Print.
Young, Katharine Galloway. Taleworlds and Storyrealms: The Phenomenology of Narrative. Print.
Dr. Monhan can be seen in this video: