Stranger than Raiders

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Audiences can perceive differences between more and less emotionally informative texts, although they may not be consciously aware of how the text's emotion cues are structured. This perceived difference can form a basis for audience tastes, with some viewers preferring highly informative texts that clearly dictate a text's emotional appeal and others favoring less densely informative texts that seem less emotionally prescriptive. Although the density of emotional information varies across a text, texts usually establish fairly stable sets of expectations concerning the level (and types) of emotion cuing a film will provide. We label a less emotionally informative film like Local Hero as a "modest" or "slight" film, and we tend to retain that label even when the last quarter of the film becomes significantly more densely informative.

Certain audiences seek slighter, less overtly prescriptive texts, texts with subtle appeals that seem to call upon the interpretive skills of discriminating, actively engaged audiences. To appeal to those audiences, a text must establish a sparsely informative framework. Jim Jarmusch has a vested interest in audiences' labeling Stranger than Paradise as a "hip," "alternative" text that does not strongly try to dictate audience emotional response in the way that Raiders does. Once this emotional framework is established and we have labeled the film as making some sort of "minimalist" appeal, Stranger than Paradise is free to provide more densely informative cues at crucial narrative moments, as Hollywood cinema typically does.

The point here is not to elide the considerable differences between Raiders of the Lost Ark and Stranger than Paradise. Both texts prescribe emotional responses to their audience, but it is not the case that Stranger than Paradise uses entirely different tactics than Raiders, thus requiring a different approach to analyzing their emotional appeals. The point is to show that even a sparse work like Jarmusch's can be productively analyzed using the terminology developed here, revealing how its minimalist emotional appeal is structured.

Stranger than Paradise restricts itself to few of cinema's expressive properties. The film eschews most of editing's potential by always using a single uninterrupted shot for each scene of continuous space and time. Scenes are shot from a single camera setup; the camera only occasionally moves to reframe moving characters. This strategy restricts the range of angle, shot scale, and compositions available. Characters are seen mostly in medium-long to long shots, providing little detailed information on facial expressions. Eva's (Eszter Balint) hair and Willie's (John Lurie) and Eddie's (Richard Edson) ever-present hats frequently hide portions of their faces, particularly because many of the interior group scenes are shot from a slight high angle. In fact, many scenes are shot with the protagonists facing away from the camera so we cannot receive any facial information whatsoever. The black-and-white lighting is flat with almost no sculpted effects to convey no more specific emotional states than a rather diffuse and bleak mood. The interior locations have almost no decorations (unlike the more detailed art direction of modern Hollywood), providing virtually a tabula rasa against which the actors are positioned. The film uses only occasional bits of diegetic and nondiegetic music, and there are often long pauses between lines, giving the film a sense of being starkly muted.

Neither does the film provide us with clear character goals that would help us label the characters' emotions. The characters are idlers, drifters whose primary goals are geographical: getting to Cleveland or Florida. When they actually arrive at a destination (Cleveland, for example), they do little but sit around watching television and playing cards. In the film's first act ("The New World"), there is not even a progression toward a geographical goal. Instead the first act is concerned with waiting, as Eva must spend ten days in Willie's apartment. Stranger than Paradise hints at some personal goals (perhaps Eddie or Willie is enamored of Eva), but they are never directly addressed. Primarily the characters' actions seem motivated by boredom more than the pursuit of any goal.

Nor are there strong genre cues to guide our interpretation. At times Stranger than Paradise seems like a road film (except for those lengthy sections when the characters are going nowhere at all). At other times it is reminiscent of absurdist comedy. The film defies traditional genre categorization and therefore does not take advantage of the set of emotional expectations that genre prototypes bring.

As the mood-cue approach suggests, it is the set of genre microscripts we carry that are most useful in reading a text's emotion cues, not the broad scripts we have for a genre text's overall construction. These microscripts can be invoked quickly and simply, often with a line or two of dialogue. In this way, Stranger than Paradise can elicit emotional responses without depending on more obvious strategies such as a recognizable genre form, maintaining its strong differentiation from Hollywood product while taking advantage of the small narrative scripts we have accumulated through countless encounters with Hollywood products.

For example, when Eva leaves for Cleveland after a stormy ten days with Willie, their farewell moments are shaped by our labeling the scenes as a wistful good-bye between people who care (romantically?) about each other. We have seen them arguing over trivia in several preceding scenes, and our experiences with countless romantic comedies show us that argumentative banter can be read as an expression of romantic interest. On the other hand, perhaps they are truly arguing with each other. The text nudges us toward the former interpretation when Willie gives Eva a dress (which she promptly pronounces to be ugly). The mise-en-scene privileges Willie's face as he watches her pack, encouraging us to watch him for further hints of his sadness at her leaving.

Given this preparation, we are encouraged to interpret their halting goodbye in terms of a genre microscript: a couple parting without ever acknowledging their feelings for each other. The farewell is sad, wistful, and poignant, almost signaling pathos (at least in relation to the minimal emotional expectations that have been established). The moment is sad largely because of the genre microscript that has been evoked, as opposed to having densely informative emotion cuing at that moment, which would be too blatant in comparison with the film's sparse framework.

When Eddie says that he has a good feeling about going to the dog track and betting money, this invokes a standard Hollywood genre microscript. If film characters say they feel lucky when they go to gamble, this sets up a time-honored expectation (particularly in comedy) that they will lose their shirts (which Eddie of course does). We anticipate the comic payoff when Willie and Eddie return from the track having lost almost all the money. Such moments create brief narrative hypotheses that can be quickly and comically confirmed.

Stranger than Paradise seems to be a more "open" text (in Eco's5 terms), calling upon active contributions from the reader or viewer to fill in the narrative hinted at by the "subtle" text. Such texts do not seem to prescribe reader or viewer responses in the way that "closed" texts like Raiders of the Lost Ark do. Instead, they feel as if more of the work is done by the reader or viewer, not by the text leading its reader or viewer by the nose. All films, however, call upon readers to make interpretive contributions based on their previous encounters with movies. The differences between the use of genre scripts by Raiders and Stranger than Paradise are primarily ones of scale and frequency, not a radical disjunction between the mechanisms of "open" and "closed" texts.6 Raiders of the Lost Ark uses both large genre prototypes (the adventure serial) and genre microscripts to signal its appeal. Stranger than Paradise almost exclusively uses smaller-scale narrative scripts to guide our emotional hypothesis formation.

Many of Stranger than Paradise's comic effects depend not only on our expectations of what certain kinds of texts or characters will do in particular narrative situations, but also on our understanding of what Hollywood narratives agree to show and not show us. Some of the laughs are evoked rather traditionally through character banter (e.g., arguing over football or TV dinners), but other laughs occur as we cut away from a scene, long after dialogue has stopped. In these cases the joke is often a joke at the expense of traditional Hollywood narration.

Classical Hollywood cinema elides moments in which there is no dramatic action, and traditional Hollywood practice tends to cut away from scenes while dramatic tension is still present, not after it has dissipated. Stranger than Paradise, on the other hand, sometimes cuts after long pauses that are narratively extraneous. It shows us scenes with no apparent impact on the plot's unfolding, mundane scenes that would probably be elided in the classical cinema (e.g., dully watching television). The humor comes from our surprise at the filmmaker including such scenes or such pauses at all. Some audiences find this "joke" more frustrating than amusing, but both audiences recognize the violation of our assumptions concerning what a film will and will not show us.7 The emotion (anger or humor) depends on our overall prototype of how film narration presents a story.

Once our expectations are established, Jarmusch can vary slightly from these emotion cuing norms, creating emotional peaks in relation to its minimalist standards. Once we have learned not to expect dense emotion cuing, an increase in the cuing density marks that moment as a relative high point, even though such moments are themselves far less densely informative than much of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

For example, the nondiegetic solo string leitmotif that we hear at irregular intervals becomes much more frequent around Eva and Willie's farewell. The early occurrences of this leitmotif alert us that this text, from time to time, will use a brief repeated nondiegetic music cue to bridge the gap between scenes. In the first act this cue is heard infrequently, just often enough so that its appearance will not be totally surprising to the audience. So when we hear this leitmotif at the end of the scene in which Eva spurns Willie's gift, we are prepared for the occurrence of such cuing. Then we hear the same music cue again at the end of the next scene (Eva packing for Cleveland). Never before has the text used the music cue in consecutive scenes. Next comes the farewell scene (without music), followed by a scene in which Eva removes the dress Willie gave her, a scene once again marked by the string solo. Within the miminalist context of the film, this is rather rapid cuing in addition to the emotional appeal of the farewell genre microscript (noted earlier). These factors mark the farewell section as a peak emotional moment in the film, a moment that verges on (relative) pathos.

Note, however, that we do not hear the repeated music cue in the farewell scene itself. Having too many cues coincide (genre microscripts and music) might threaten to make this scene too markedly different from the modest emotional appeal already established. The coincidence of a sad music motif with a traditionally sad narrative incident might too overtly convey the emotion cuing, making the viewer conscious of the "heavy-handedness." So Jarmusch chooses not to use the music cue at the dramatic moment's peak, and instead uses it before and after the peak to mark the incident's significance more subtly. In this way Stranger than Paradise preserves its carefully constructed framework of minimal emotions while subtly calling for stronger emotions for an individual moment.

Again and again in this study, we will return to the way music functions at the microlevel of style to associate one scene with another. As I argued with genre microscripts, the importance of music in the mood-cue approach seems to be in its function as a local structure. Because emotions are brief, the brevity of music cues help make them an ideal way of appealing to the emotion system at particular moments.

Stranger than Paradise finds other ways to communicate its emotion cues without their being called to our attention. This film makes many obvious choices to limit the cinema's emotional expressiveness (single camera setups, long shots, long takes, etc.). However, the film uses rather dense cuing in an expressive register that is not usually privileged in our spectatorial consciousness: sound effects. The filmmakers choose to mike the diegetic sounds very closely instead of matching the sound perspective to the distanced visual perspective. We hear the crisp sounds of cigarette packs being unwrapped, the sounds of chairs scraping the floor, and so on. Because the scenes frequently feature long pauses in the dialogue, such proximate sound effects become more pronounced, more important.

This sound proximity gives the diegesis a quality of "nearness" that balances the visual distanciation strategies. Consider how remote the appeal of the diegesis would seem if Jarmusch chose to duplicate the visual distanciation techniques in the audio register. The resulting film would be even more detached. Choosing to remain visually distant from but aurally close to the characters takes advantage of the fact that we generally consider the visual to be dominant in the cinema, and therefore visual strategies tend to be more easily noticeable, particularly to the cinema aesthete. We are trained as spectators to pay relatively less conscious attention to the audio track (other than dialogue and highly foregrounded music such as Screaming Jay Hawkins's "I Put a Spell on You"), so Jarmusch can use denser cuing in his sound effects track with little risk of disturbing the film's consciously minimalist framework.

The film also becomes significantly more goal oriented in its third act after having previously established itself as a static or (at best) a broadly wandering narrative. In the act titled "Paradise" Willie, Eddie, and Eva travel to Florida to try to win a lot of money gambling. For the first time in the film, the characters actually go somewhere and do something when they get there, allowing us to label their emotional states more precisely. We understand their excitement when they reach Florida, and we fathom Eva's and Willie's anger when Eddie loses the money at the dog track. In this act Stranger than Paradise operates much more like classical narrative cinema (within the formally restrictive parameters of its mise-en-scene) with comic twists on losing the money, gaining it back, and losing it again. Here the film's plot owes much to the tradition of cinematic comedies about gambling (ranging from Guys and Dolls to Lost in America).

This increased goal orientation gives the final act a more straightforward emotional appeal, encouraging the viewer to respond more strongly at the film's climax. If the film had revealed this kind of character goal orientation at its outset, we would be encouraged to label the film as a much more traditional narrative structure with some visual quirks. Instead Jarmusch begins with the least goal-oriented act, calling on the viewer to create more modest emotion cuing expectations, which are exceeded in the comic "big finish."

In this way Stranger than Paradise resembles Local Hero, another film that works hard to establish its subtle emotional framework, only to turn to a more goal-oriented narrative in its final sections. This allows such films to provide their audiences with emotionally satisfying payoffs without seeming too coarsely or overtly prescriptive. Having labeled the films as sparsely informative, we are asked to read the films' climaxes as more emotionally marked. As long as the films do not continue too long in this more densely informative mode, we tend not to revise our framework, and so we leave the theater after a highly marked emotional moment while still maintaining our conception of the film as a subtle work.

This short study of Stranger than Paradise points out the difficulties of labeling such a film in terms of the overall interpretive framework called for in the film itself. If we simply consider Stranger than Paradise to be a minimalist film (or an "open" text), we can overlook the considerable variation in type and density of cuing that occurs over the course of the film. Instead I argue that we should examine how the film works to create its emotional appeal moment by moment. Using the structural vocabulary developed in this chapter in such specific and limited instances, we can see how a film asks a viewer to respond emotionally, and we can examine how cinematic emotional appeals are both related and relatively different.

I began this chapter with an admission of how the flexibility of the emotion system would seem to make it difficult to evoke emotion consistently across audiences. Given this system, it seems easy to explain the fact that emotions can vary widely among individual viewers, which was part of our desiderata. This chapter provides an explanation for the contrasting part of that desideratum: the fact that a film can provoke remarkably similar responses across audiences. Films rely on broadly held prototypes of emotion and widely shared genre microscripts to invite consistent responses. But these tools are not enough. According to the mood-cue approach, films also coordinate nonprototypical emotion cues into structures (such as the emotion marker) that can dependably evoke emotion in audiences.

This chapter addresses other of our desiderata. The flexibility and variety of inputs to the emotion system encourage us to look at a broad range of film cuing, which is one of the desiderata. The brevity of emotions emphasizes the need for brief local structures (for instance, genre microscripts and musical motifs) to signal those emotional moments. The need for redundant cuing to sustain a mood leads us to examine the many ways films structure their cues into clusters to appeal to the emotion system, including new concepts such as emotion markers and densely informative emotion cuing.

The mini case studies in this chapter are intended as an initial demonstration of how the mood-cue approach can satisfy our desiderata. For more comprehensive demonstrations, I refer the reader to Part Two of this book (Chapters 5-9), which addresses specific desiderata using full-length case studies.

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