There are times when our critical vocabulary is all too shallow. There are times when our critical vocabulary becomes so deep as to be impenetrable. There are also times when our critical vocabulary is reduced to the status of the mantra; sentences and judgments, once meaningful, loose their potency through endless repetition. First they move from insight to cliché and then they move from cliché to mantra. Endlessly repeated. Endlessly meaningless.
One such mantra is the assessment that a writer is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ at characterisation. These sorts of evaluations pop up in all forms of criticism and yet they are seldom unpacked. What makes a good character? What makes a bad character? When does a writer cross from one category to another? What takes place when a writer fails to engage in ‘good’ characterisation? Literary theory is frustratingly evasive on this question, all too often ‘good characterisation’ is defined in terms that offer little penetration and little insight beyond the obvious synonyms. Consider, for example, the famous distinction drawn by E. M. Forster in his collection of lectures Aspects of the Novel (1927) :
The test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way. If it never surprises, it is flat. If it does not convince, it is a flat pretending to be round. It has the incalculability of life about it—life within the pages of a book.
So a ‘round’ character is convincing while a ‘flat’ character is not. This advances us precious little. What makes some characters more convincing than others? Which techniques reliably produce rounded characters?
One place to find inspiration is the visual arts. One of the most important concepts to the analysis of visual composition is the idea of negative space. Negative space can be described as the space that exists around the foregrounded object, but it can also be quite a bit more. Indeed, when an untrained photographer takes a picture of something, they tend to see everything that is not a part of that something as mere background. However, by focussing solely on the object itself, unskilled artists will frequently produce a picture that seems somehow wrong. Aesthetically imbalanced. Strangely ugly. Frequently, this is because of a lack of attention to the space surrounding the foregrounded object. Indeed, in order to force their students to take negative space into account, composition teachers will frequently ask them to draw not the object itself but the space surrounding that object. It is only by balancing the use of positive space with the use of negative space that elegant composition can be achieved.
This principle also applies to characterisation.
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All drama is a process of digestion. The peristaltic processing of information and emotional states resulting in change. It is an on-going process. It never stops. The best dramas are those that choose their moment carefully, setting up the cameras or lighting the stage just as the emotional bowels twitch or the psychological constipation ends. For all of her tendencies towards hard-hitting topics and enigmatic story-telling techniques, Claire Denis is a genuinely world-class dramatist. Films such as 35 Shots of Rum (2008) and The Intruder (2004) are heady examinations of sudden changes that come after long periods of emotional constipation.
In The Intruder, we see an old man who has lived life entirely upon his own terms – his past a catalogue of burned bridges, old enmities and shady deals – suddenly realising that he has to reconnect with his estranged son. In 35 Shots of Rum we are introduced to a family that exists in perfect emotional balance. The son and the daughter live together while the father’s old girlfriend and the upstairs neighbour orbit round the household in enigmatic patterns, part of the family and yet denied any clear role in it. Both films deal with the inevitable change that must afflict these delicate psychological ecosystems. A process of change that is, according to Denis at least, a mixed-blessing.
The ending to 35 Shots of Rum can be read as either a wedding or a funeral. The father’s announcement that the time has come for him to drink the 35 shots can be seen as either a capitulation to unwanted forces or as a moment of spiritual rebirth. Like the Death tarot card, the film marks the end of a period of stasis, it does not explain whether this stasis is broken by an ending or a new beginning. Similarly, the ambiguous moral character of The Intruder’s protagonist cloaks his eventual death in dramaturgical vagueness. Is it sad that he never got to know his son? Or was his death deserved for the crimes he committed in order to artificially extend his own life? For Denis, this process of emotional change can also be terrifying, as demonstrated in her take on the vampire film Trouble Every Day (2001). In that film a doctor nails his wife up in her bedroom because she has changed into something Other while an American who harbours terrible violent fantasies stalks the world desperately trying to find a cure. When the pair come together it is erotic and terrifying, natural and unnatural, to be applauded and avoided.
Denis’ Beau Travail, an adaptation of Melville’s unfinished novella Billy Budd (1924) set against the backdrop of the modern-day French Foreign Legion, continues Denis’ interest in the complexities and ambiguities of emotional change and emotional constipation, demonstrating them with her characteristic grace and lack of pity.
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