Review: Character as Character - Understanding and Appreciating People in Films

This one day Character as Character - Understanding and Appreciating People in Films symposium organised by Dominic Lash (University of Bristol) and Hoi Lun Law (Independent Scholar) took place on Saturday 13th October at the University of Bristol; drawing inspiration for its title from V.F. Perkins’ seminal Film as Film: Understanding and Judging Movies (1972 [1993]). Although the influence of Perkins was only fleetingly acknowledged, the symposium as a whole proved a great showcase for the close and attentive analysis of an otherwise neglected aspect of Film Studies. Lash and Law address the lack of existing criticism on character in film in their call for papers (available at https://characterascharacter.wordpress.com/). In keeping with the Perkins-esque inflection of the title, the organisers also call for a greater attention to the character on screen as object of study, and “the value there might be in attempting to study character as character.” The symposium consisted of three panels, with papers covering a range of films from classical and contemporary Hollywood as well European and Russian art cinema. The diversity in film choice was also reflected in the variety of responses to the questions raised by Lash and Law in the CFP: “What is a film character, how do we understand them, and how might we best appreciate the achievements that successful film characters represent?”

  Fig. 1 - Benedict Morrison (University of Exeter).

Fig. 1 - Benedict Morrison (University of Exeter).

The conference opened with a keynote from Benedict Morrison (University of Exeter), whose exploration of the challenges posed to criticism by characters who do not conform to certain traditional conceptions of character as stable centre of meaning provided an excellent foundation to later discussions (Fig. 1). By focusing on characters who do not behave as they “should”, Morrison’s paper provided an overview of both traditional theorisations of character in terms of depth and coherence and Morrison’s alternative conceptualisation of character as a series of connected flatnesses. Of particular interest to Morrison are those films and characters where the joints are cracked and visible, as these draw attention to the fragmentation and flatness of all characters; challenging the illusion of depth and coherence. Morrison draws comparisons between these sorts of characters and ruins. Following Morrison, a ruin is not the absence of a building but rather a derangement that makes visible the joins. Similarly, an inarticulate character such as Edmund in Germany Year Zero/Germania anno zero (Roberto Rossellini, 1948) is a character in ruins – a character with the joints made visible. Morrison also displayed his skill with metaphor in comparing the interpretation of character to a haunted house, where spectres serve to stabilise and make legible the eccentric phenomena of haunting. In film, character has traditionally served this function, as a stable centre around which meaning coheres and which might explain the eccentricities of style. In his paper, Morrison made the case for an alternative form of criticism that resisted the imposition of stability and coherence in favour of an approach open to inconsistency and playfulness, and that acknowledges character as performance.

Similar issues of interpretation and definition informed the second panel, with papers on Stalker (Andrey Tarkovsky, 1979), 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick 1968), and imagined mentor figures in biopics from Dominic Lash, Matt Denny (Warwick), and Carolyn Rickards (University of Bristol) respectively (Fig. 2). Rickards’ paper touched on topics of particular relevance to those interested in fantasy and animation; her analysis of A Beautiful Mind (Ron Howard, 2001) drawing attention to the use of CGI to subtly hint at the hallucinatory nature of certain characters. Rickards complicated the straightforward interpretation of such figures as merely projections of the lead character by drawing attention to ways in which such characters conform to the generic role of mentor figure and how the haptic qualities of these characters encourage perception of them as solid, “real” individuals. While focused on the biopic, Rickards’ work could usefully be taken up to explore the representation of imagined figures in other genres, and the extent to which representation of these characters as solid is essential to an audience’s empathetic response (Fig. 3). Questions of empathy and identification in a fantastical (or at least, sci-fi) context also arose in the papers from Lash and Denny, with Lash illustrating how a close and receptive reading of the central character in Stalker can open up alternative interpretations of the film, while Denny explored the effect of treating homicidal computer HAL 9000 as a character.

  Fig. 2 (L-R) - Hoi Lun Law (Independent Scholar), Carolyn Rickards (University of Bristol), Dominic Lash (University of Bristol) and Matt Denny (University of Warwick).

Fig. 2 (L-R) - Hoi Lun Law (Independent Scholar), Carolyn Rickards (University of Bristol), Dominic Lash (University of Bristol) and Matt Denny (University of Warwick).

  Fig. 3 - Carolyn Rickards (University of Bristol).

Fig. 3 - Carolyn Rickards (University of Bristol).

The second panel featured papers with more overt relevance to scholars of fantasy and animation, beginning with Alex Sergeant’s (Bournemouth University) paper on fantasy cinema and spectatorship. Through an analysis of Alice in Wonderland (Norman Z. McCleod, 1933) – a film which attempts to balance the paradoxical demands of classical narration and fantasy spectacle – Sergeant demonstrated the apparent incompatibility between fantasy characterisation and theories of spectatorship (Fig. 4). Delving into the psychoanalytic baggage of the term, Sergeant emerges with a reconceptualization of spectator identification more suitable to the mode of characterisation typical of fantasy by taking up the concept of cathexis. Rather than the more typically Lacanian understanding of the role of fantasy as a support for the symbolic, we are able to appreciate how the symbolic is bent and melded to suit the fantasy. Alice, of course, serves as a superb illustration for this sort of overturning, but Sergeant provides a useful framework for thinking about character beyond the film in question. Continuing the theme of identification and – in a broad sense – fantasy, Sergeant’s paper was followed by Pete Jones’ (University of Manchester) presentation of his statistical analysis of speech acts in Wonder Woman (Patty Jenkins, 2017). Jones’ paper broadened the scope of what was otherwise a largely Film Studies-centric symposium, showcasing a methodology more grounded in sociology than the traditions of film theory and close reading evident in previous papers. Jones’ paper raises interesting questions about what we mean by “female led” films if the descriptor is used of films where the secondary male lead both speaks more and is spoken to less than the apparent lead. Questions following Jones’ paper also provoked discussion about the relative value of dialogue in various genres, and the importance and power of certain non-verbal action sequences in the film. Considered in light of Sergeant’s paper, it seems that there are interesting questions to be asked about how character and identification operates differently across genres.

  Fig. 4 -  Alice in Wonderland  (Norman Z. McCleod, 1933).

Fig. 4 - Alice in Wonderland (Norman Z. McCleod, 1933).

The day ended with a strong final panel and papers on Persona (Ingmar Bergman, 1966), Once upon a Honeymoon (Leo McCarey, 1942) and Arsenic and Old Lace (Frank Capra, 1944). Kathrina Glitre’s (University of West England) paper on the latter provided a fascinating account of how the role of Mortimer Brewster was adapted to better suit the star persona of Cary Grant, and the narrative changes made in the adaptation to accommodate this. Glitre’s research also demonstrated the extent to which these changes occurred during shooting rather than in the script; providing a pleasing link to Daniel Chan’s (City University of Hong Kong) work on spontaneity in Once Upon a Honeymoon. Along with Chan, James Jackson’s (University of Southampton) paper on Persona reflected the shift away from studies of spectator to close analysis of the formal qualities of film, and the relation of film form to character and interiority.

As is hopefully evident from this report, the conference as a whole was a success and the organisation of panels served each individual paper well, allowing for interesting links and comparisons to be drawn between quite varied papers. It should also be noted that attendance at the conference was free – a provision which makes conference attendance much more viable for those on casual or teaching only contracts. An interesting trend emerging from the conference is the extent to which delegates followed in the track laid down by Morrison’s keynote regarding the ill-fit between certain theories of character and character as it is experienced in film. Far from producing a unified theory of character however, the conference instead propagated a range of responses encompassing psychoanalysis, post-structuralism, and behavioural science. Also clear was the extent to which character is tied to issues of genre. The requirements of character in a neorealist film may well be distinct from those of a fantasy, and these are different again from those of a film like Stalker or Persona, or Last Year at Marienbad (Alain Resnais, 1961), which in turn have requirements quite distinct from a Cary Grant vehicle. While it is certainly beyond the scope of a one day conference to provide a definitive ruling on the nature of character, it is nonetheless compelling that the conclusions reached seem to suggest that the definition and functions of character are contingent upon a host of external factors.

Biography

Dr Matt Denny is a Teaching Fellow in the Department of Film and Television Studies at the University of Warwick, and acting Director of Student Experience and Progression (DSEP). He completed both undergraduate and postgraduate study in the department at Warwick. He holds a First Class BA in Film and Literature, an MA For Research in Film and Television Study, and earned my PhD in Film and Television Studies in 2016. His doctoral thesis is concerned with theories of film authorship and postmodern cinema.