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Foreshadowing

Thinking in Images

 

It is a commonly used phrase, but is foreshadowing in film offered too all-encompassingly? Can we usefully break it down into various component parts to understand its emotional impact more readily than its formal usefulness, and consequently work with its capacity to produce or deny thought? Foreshadowing usually means a narrative hint that becomes a later event, and can perhaps best be encapsulated in Chekhov’s comment: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” In an essay called, ‘Something Judicious This Way Comes’, Michael J. Highdon notes, quoting others, that “foreshadowing, which exists in a variety of expressive works, has been defined quite simply as something which projects into the present a shadow from the future.” What we want to explore are a handful of different modes in which foreshadowing manifests itself, and also to ask whether foreshadowing, as it is usually defined, while demanding thought, is not quite the same as giving birth to it.

Now there are numerous ways in which foreshadowing manifests itself in generating thought without quite instigating thinking, from a line of dialogue that announces a future event, to a knife that the filmmaker cuts to in a fight that hitherto has been fists only. For our purposes let us say foreshadowing can include the following: immediate and delayed, verbal and visual, symbolic and ethical, the indirect and the direct, and the true and the false, and in their various uses create quite different feelings and responses in the viewer, even if filmmakers often use more than one element at the same time.

A couple of good examples of immediate foreshadowing come in Casino Royale and in The Bourne Identity, the latter anticipating a chase sequence; the former during one, but each an example of direct immediate foreshadowing. In The Bourne Identity, Matt Damon and Famke Potente are sitting in the mini when Bourne sees out of the rear view mirror something untoward, and we register the untowardness at the same time as Damon but before Potente. She is oblivious because she does not see what Damon sees and what we see also: an immediate threat as he asks her to put on her seatbelt.  In Casino Royale, it is in the middle of the sequence and we’re privy to Bond’s quick choices and reflexes as the film cuts between Bond and the man he chases. As we see him thinking quickly so we too have to think quickly with him, as a button needs to be pressed or a cord released and we are aware a moment before it is done what Bond is about to do. Both are examples of immediate direct foreshadowing as the action is about to take place, and the viewer is placed in an identificatory relationship with the character and the information. Here we are involved in an empathic relationship with character without mediation.

In Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest and Psycho the director gives us examples of indirect immediate foreshadowing. In North by Northwest there is a track and pan towards a couple of characters standing in the hallway near the table where central character Roger O. Thornhill sits, and we cannot but assume that this forceful camera shot signifies the danger that Thornhill will imminently be in. It is immediate in the sense that within the very scene the couple of men will be forcefully removing Thornhill from the hotel and putting him in a car, but it is also indirect in that Thornhill does not at this stage know what the audience knows.  A similar shot is offered in Psycho, where Marion Crane is in her apartment and has a large sum of money she is supposed to deposit in the bank, but which she may be thinking of keeping for herself. As the camera pushes in on the money in an envelope so we know what Marion may not quite know: that she will steal it. In each instance this is Hitchcock momentarily playing God with the audience.  He may moments later give us a shot of Marion looking at the money, but such a shot is a different form of foreshadowing as we’re couching it: closer to the direct foreshadowing offered in Casino Royale and The Bourne Identity.  The indirect foreshadowing hints at events characters are not yet quite aware of.

A verbal foreshadowing might often come in the form of what Alexander MacKendrick, in On Filmmaking,  has called appointments, a scene that takes place in the narrative near future where a character says to another that they will meet for a drink, a meal, a film or whatever it might be. However, perhaps we cannot quite call this foreshadowing as it lacks a relational dimension, an element that draws a thought out of the viewer based on an aspect of inference. If Hitchcock is often seen as the great director of relations according to Gilles Deleuze in Cinema 1 – The Movement Image, it rests partly on the director’s capacity to generate inferences in the viewer based on forthcoming events. An appointment is not quite foreshadowed in such an instance because we have no speculative expectation in the forthcoming scene, and thus it requires no inferences on the part of the viewer, but instead will contain, within the appointment, space for low-key speculative reasoning on the part of the viewer. For example, if a character says he will meet his friend for a drink, this is an appointment, but there is no foreshadowing, no imaginative, inferential aspect to that future scene. But if the character says I will meet you on Friday and I’ll bring along my wife and also her best friend, whom the central and single character has never met, then it would be more likely to set to work our speculative faculties. Who is this women; will she be a good match up for our hero?  A typical example of verbal foreshadowing in this sense comes in a film like Jack Goes Boating, where the Hispanic couple who are friends of the title character try and hook him up with a friend of theirs, and a later one when he decides he wants to cook for the four of them:  though he has taken cooking lessons we know Jack is a fragile and insecure character, and when he proposes the forthcoming meal we wait well aware that the situation could go horribly wrong.

This type of verbal foreshadowing, with a character about to enter the film and on whom we can speculate, or an event in the near future that could very likely be disastrous, are common forms of verbal foreshadowing. However, another, more challenging example would be its presence in The Conversation, where a line of dialogue seems to mean one thing at the beginning of the film but the same line means something very different at the end of it. Here Gene Hackman’s character listens to a tape indicating that someone is going to be killed: at first he assumes it to be the young wife who will be murdered, only to find out at the end that it will be the young wife murdering the older husband. Here director Francis Coppola creates false inference, with the viewer basing their assumptions on what they think is solid evidence, only to find that indeed it hasn’t been.

An area of foreshadowing that can take both verbal and visual form is delayed foreshadowing, where we have a character show he can take care of himself, as we will explore in Shane, or through the presence of rumour. In McCabe and Mrs Miller the person hired to assassinate McCabe doesn’t show what he can do: but the rumour mill makes it clear he is a dangerous man. Chekhov’s example that we opened with is a great illustration of the delayed, but many a film will create situations that will pay off later. When for example in Shane the young boy plays with a gun and Shane turns quickly and goes for his gun we know fine well that here we have a man who is handy with a pistol. Not long afterwards when he is abused in a bar, we also know that in time he will confront and surely get the better of the man who humiliates him. Director George Stevens works with delayed foreshadowing, here, as we know in that early scene Shane is no dout a handy gunslinger, and later when he is mocked in the bar that he will be able more than equal to his opponent. This type of delayed foreshadowing often allows for a high degree of audience righteousness as we wait for a character to assert himself, and also assert the sort of values with which the viewer is in allegiance.

Now of course it doesn’t always have to take so straightforward a form, and a similar sense of righteousness can be achieved by contracting rather than elongating the foreshadowing. When for example Warren Beatty orders milk in a bar in The Parallax View, the film plays up less the righteousness in Beatty’s pulping of a trouble maker, than the jokey tone of a scene that is classically predictable, and where Beatty consequently gets his man sooner rather than later – as if saying that whatever foreshadowing the film is finally interested in, it can’t so readily be alleviated by clear heroes and villains. The relative immediate foreshadowing of The Parallax View takes the elongated approach of Shane and contracts it for absurdist humour. At one moment, Beatty holds his fist in pain after delivering a punch; a moment of low-key humour as the film acknowledges both the foreshadowing convention, and at the same time the fact that if someone does hit another hard enough there is a good chance that it isn’t only the face of the opponent that gets hurt, but also potentially the hero’s hand.

However, in the conventional sense, immediate foreshadowing isn’t especially a joke on the elongated form, it is usually where the audience anticipates or shares a character’s imminent action, as in The Bourne Identity or in Casino Royale. However, in each instance the viewer’s relationship with the characters’ thought is simple rather than complex – simple in the sense that the thought will be as close to automatic as the filmmaker can make it. Here the films work not quite off automatic memory, as we would when driving a car or riding a bike, but with the briefest of intervals between the perception and the action. Many a chase sequence will work with this brief interval, whether the character is aware or otherwise as the audience wonders how characters will get out of a tight situation. We might think of the scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid where the characters go over a gorge and into the water.

Now many of the examples of foreshadowing we have offered definitely demand a thought, but can we call it thinking. “The most thought provoking thing is that we are still not thinking”, Heidegger once announced, and much of what we have looked at here is consistent with Bergson’s ideas in relation to sensory motor activity; the sort of thought that requires only the briefest of intervals to generate action.  However, it still requires a thought, taking into account our example of the person who is meeting up with his friend and will be bringing along a possible new woman for him. If he simply says we will meet on Friday, there is an appointment but there is no thought, nothing that we might call an arena of speculation. The basic difference between the appointment and foreshadowing lies in this speculative aspect. For example, how might the filmmaker who wants us to speculate on the event rather than merely wait for it open up this speculative arena? We might be told earlier in the film that the wife has a friend who is a little temperamental, and we might wait to see if this is the very woman that will be taken along for the meeting. We might also know that though she is one of the wife’s best friends, the central character’s buddy doesn’t like her very much at all. The appointment suddenly is full of speculation: will it be the difficult woman; if it is will the central character take to her, will the friend argue with his wife’s friend, will there consequently be a fall out between the husband and wife over this attempt to get the central character hooked up? We are hardly talking complex thought here, but that is perhaps the very issue: the manner in which many a mainstream film creates thought without thinking, narrative possibilities without a broader sense of enquiry.

Up until this point we’ve looked chiefly at  garden variety foreshadowing, at the sort of narrative prefiguring that creates speculation without quite generating thought, and if Hitchcock remains so important to film narrative it rests at least partly on his ability to stretch further than most this type of speculation into the possibility of thinking. Now ‘proper’ film thinking is thought that goes beyond the speculative and into rumination, into not only narrative questioning, but also thematic exploration, taking into account Milan Kundera’s always useful distinction in The Art of the Novel  between story and theme. Here he insists a novel goes flat when it lacks the latter and pursues too strongly the former. What happens in the thematic here is that the garden variety gives way to a more exotic breed of thinking, and the speculation no longer remains solely rooted in the immediacy of the story, but stretches beyond to the thematic possibilities to which the story gives birth.

Why is Hitchcock so important for this, and certainly significant enough for Gilles Deleuze to talk about the director creating the space for one image to give way to the other?  Deleuze talks of relations in Hitchcock, and takes the term from David Hume, and what counts in such instances is not especially the givens of a story but its hypothetical opportunities. A given would be where a story is set in motion on narratively categorical terms and the audience is privy to these facts.  A film like Rambo: First Blood Part Two has John Rambo back in Vietnam on the behest of his former colonel, looking to find veterans lost in captivity: it is Rambo’s purpose to bring them back. A director might instead say we as viewers don’t need the sort of categorical evidence a film like Rambo provides as it sets in motion the story: it would be enough to give him a mission, however arbitrary. What matters wouldn’t be the motivational forces behind the action; merely that the character has a reason that sets the story in motion and that is of little importance to the audience what that happens to be. For example, when the colonel explains what the mission is about, the film could cut as he starts to explain it; just as David Mamet in the Hitchcockian thriller The Spanish Prisoner chooses not to show us a key sum of money written on a blackboard. The characters in the film see the blackboard, but we do not. Perhaps the colonel could have promised all sorts of rewards for Rambo that we don’t need to know anything about; only that the rewards are sufficient to get a man back in the jungle. What counts in a cinema denying the categorical motivation is that relations can be set up without the audience needing to know the very motivations relevant to the character. The action is important unto itself, and so the motivation becomes insignificant as long as the relations that connect one piece of action to the next are logically consistent. In Psycho we happen to know the sum of money Marion Crane steals, just as in Rear Window we know exactly why L. B. Jefferies is stuck in his apartment, but we needn’t have, and there is something in Hitchcock’s cinema that could easily deny the details without the viewer being overly troubled by these absences. Indeed, of course, Hitchcock had a term for such absences: the McGuffin. “an object or event in a book or a film”, according to The Collins English Dictionary, “that serves as the impetus for the plot”, and usually serves no other purpose.

However, vital to back story ignored, or motivational detail eschewed, is the capacity for two things: predictive rather than predictable narrative event, and coherent narrative logic. Hitchcock may have frequently offered motivation and back story, may even as in Vertigo have opened his film on both as we witness Scottie’s vertigo before the narrative proper starts, but it is as though what especially fascinated him were predictive reasoning and plot logic as he tried to take film further into the arena of working our speculative faculties. How can we think ahead of the film, and how can the film make sure that it plays fair with our speculations? The potential twofold problem in foreshadowing lies in the possible predictability of the outcome, or the logical improbability of the story. A film could foreshadow in such a way that it sets up narrative possibilities but where the outcome proves impossible to predict. A thriller that offers numerous hints at who the killer might be, and where at the end reveals that the killer is none of those characters, would be cheating in Hitchcock’s terms. The foreshadowing would not be a series of possibilities narrowed down to the categorical, but a series of false possibilities leading to a conclusion that is far from predictable but also not at all predictive.

If some filmmakers might insist the most important element in a film is to keep the audience guessing, this perhaps sounds too close to keeping the audience in the dark. Hitchcock is the sort of filmmaker who would be inclined to say he wants not especially that the audience guess, but that they scheme, and in this scheming the important thing wouldn’t be the mystery of the story, but its schematic possibilities: the manner in which the audience work their speculative faculties. Thus the instances of foreshadowing in a film give us the chance to think with the film, not especially be manipulated by it. For example when we wonder what the dog is doing in the bed of flowers in Rear Window, Hitchcock is asking us to wonder along with Jefferies what might be in there, and whether it is telling us something important about one of the neighbours. In Suspicion he asks us to work with Joan Fontaine as she increasingly finds evidence that indicates her husband is likely to murder her. If Hitchcock was not satisfied with the happy ending the studio forcibly tacked on to the film, where Cary Grant proves the loving husband, it resides not in Hitchcock’s unwillingness to end a film happily, but that the sort of foreshadowing he consistently offers indicates Fontaine’s suspicions are justified rather than not. The only way in which to take the film in epistemological good faith is to assume that he is a murderer and yet still hasn’t chosen to kill her. Otherwise all the foreshadowing proves no more than narrative trickery, with our scheming proving futile and Fontaine’s suspicions rootless, no matter that both the audience and Fontaine have been given plenty reason to suspect Grant. If in Rear Window Hitchcock sets in motion the speculative reasoning to conclude on the justification of Jefferies’ instincts, in Suspicion it proves the reverse, and turns Fontaine’s reasoning into no more than neurosis, insecurity and suspicion, and our own efforts into futile speculation.

If Hitchcock wasn’t happy with such an ending it was because he wanted to play fair, and presumably thought in such an instance the audience would feel he had cheated them. If a filmmaker foreshadows towards a certain conclusion, and then contradicts the conclusion he has evidentially moved towards, then he has perhaps not quite arrived at the un-reasonable, but instead at the unlikely. In the un-reasonable the filmmaker offers eight possible killers and it turns out to be a ninth – this is unreasonable because the filmmakers has not allowed us to reason its possibility: all the foreshadowing moves us towards assuming one of the eight is the murderer, but the film concludes on a ninth. However, in the unlikely it is possible that the outcome could be that Grant in Suspicion is innocent, but it is extremely unlikely that he will prove to be. In Rear Window it is both likely and reasonable that Raymond Burr’s character has killed his wife, and that is the ending we are given. Here the important thing is not especially then to surprise the audience, but to offer a narrative that can be both likely and reasonable. Why practise our reasoning faculties if a story is either unlikely or unreasonable? Certainly if the most important element for a viewer is to be tricked and mystified then maybe one would prefer the film to be unlikely and unreasonable, and all the foreshadowing can go into this viewer manipulation.

If horror is so often regarded as a disreputable genre is it partly because of the way in which its foreshadowing manipulates the viewer rather than works our reasoning procedures. A number of horror foreshadowing devices can seem empty because they don’t contribute to the narrative logic we insisted was vital to the Hitchcockian , but allow the audience feelings of shock and surprise, without that shock and surprise impacting at all on the narrative reasoning of the film. The commonly used dream sequence for example can give the film the opportunity to kill off a leading character and to shock the audience with the character’s demise, only for a few moments later the self-same character to be resurrected as we realise it was a dream and the film can continue with its narrative unharmed. When Hitchcock in Vertigo and more especially in Psycho kills off leading characters the plot logic has to accommodate these deaths; in numerous horror films that isn’t the case, and we can see how a certain micro-narrative of foreshadowing, as we notice for example a knife in a killer’s hand moments before he plunges it into the heroine’s back, can lead to forewarning followed by horror, but without consequence. This is basically false foreshadowing.

A much more interesting example of false foreshadowing can be found in a film like Hunger. Here Steve McQueen shows a character near the beginning of the film nursing bruises and cuts on the back of his hand. We’re invited to muse over where these cuts and bruises may have come from, and presumably have sympathy for the hand of this character. Later on we realise his hands are cut and bruised because he lays into the prisoners in the Northern Irish prison in which he works. Our initial sympathy, our foreshadowed sympathy if you like as we wait to see what has caused such bruising, turns out to be false, not unlike our false sympathy for a character who dies and then it turns out only to be a dream. However, where in the dream sequence the device is commonly used and a ‘cheat’, in Hunger it goes beyond diegetic genre false foreshadowing, and into a perceptual category much more interesting and pertinent. How often do we feel for a person’s pain when we see them walking along the street cut and bruised, but do not know to what the cuts and bruises pertain? The person could have been in an accident or in a fight. If we found out it was the latter, and that he started it and the other person has been severely hospitalised, would our sympathies be at least partially withdrawn? McQueen intriguingly separates cause and effect, character from injury, and creates a fine example of false foreshadowing not at all reliant on genre gimmicks.

If horror frequently uses false foreshadowing, art films often use foreshadowing symbolically. Whether it is the stuffed whale as a harbinger of things to come in Werckmeister Harmonies, the suicide of a sympathetic character in La Dolce Vita or the presence of a mushroom shaped building in The Eclipse, major filmmakers like Tarr, Fellini and Antonioni allow often an indeterminate symbolic foreshadowing that alludes to possible states and feelings without quite narrativising them. It is the opposite end of the foreshadowing spectrum from the lazy horror, because where the horror film wants to create a categorical feeling out of what turns out to be the virtual, the art film often wants to create a tentative, speculative feeling out of the actual. If one is so little respected and the other so much more, we needn’t simply think of a snobbish acceptance of one and the dismissal of the other, but instead that one creates undeniable but empty manipulation; the other indeterminate intrigue as it opens its theme up to possible musings. The horror film with the false dream physiologically demands a response that is utterly local – it isn’t only limited to the diegesis, but to a false diegesis, a parenthetical diegesis that needn’t be pertinent at all to the surrounding narrative events, let alone more suggestive thematic explorations.

Intriguingly, in interviews the Iranian filmmaker Rafi Pitts has talked of trying to work with the opposite of foreshadowing in The Hunter, where he wanted the character’s actions never to be anticipated by the viewer, or for the viewer to be narratively ahead of the character. A simple example of this anticipation would be where one sees a medium long shot of the house before the car in which the central character happens to be in pulls up outside. But often filmmakers will multiply this anticipation by having the villains waiting in the house and the viewer knowing they happen to be there. We might also then notice that the central character’s daughter is being held hostage in the house, and the suspense resides in how a character who does not know what is happening will deal with this utterly known situation for the viewer and unknown scenario for the character. The suspense here doesn’t lie in the viewer’s ignorance, but in wondering how the character will deal with the problems that await him. This is close to the indirect foreshadowing we talked of earlier in the example from North by Northwest, and we might wonder why certain filmmakers would be so reluctant to generate this type of foreknowledge. If Hitchcock wanted  a cinema of logical relations, where foregrounding allows the viewer to thinking schematically ahead, a director like Rafi Pitts, wants an existential reasoning process where one focuses on the immediacy of situation: we are in an epistemologically empathic relationship with our hero; and not at all playing God. If Hitchcock’s is a theo-logical cinema where the director plays deity, Pitts offers an atheist existential cinema where no one can claim to hold such a position.

Perhaps now we are in a better place to muse over the problem of foreshadowing and ask what it serves, why so often the device seems stale, and look at the ways in which its acceptance or rejection can reenergise cinema. If foreshadowing allows us to work out relations, work out certain logical connections between events, then we can say it adds to our relational comprehension of the world. This is perhaps especially so in the examples of direct foreshadowing where a character sees what he needs to do in the situation that he happens to be in, and acts accordingly. We as viewers don’t follow his actions, nor do we anticipate them: we share the thought process as it occurs to him. In the indirect form we can potentially follow much more a logistical rather than personal thought process as the director shows us the relationship between events greater than a character’s capacity to witness them. When in a film like The Battle of Algiers or Z the directors cross-cut between a series of events, the aim is to ask us to comprehend the political interconnections; it isn’t only to create an adrenaline rush through parallel montage. When for example we see a bomb being placed in a bin in The Battle of Algiers and wait for it to go off, director Gillo Pontecorvo can create a complex response in the viewer that asks us to accept certain political realities. On the one hand we do not wish for anyone to die, but on the other know that the bomb has been placed there to help the Algerians move towards national self-governance and liberate themselves from colonization by the French. We might not want the bomb to go off humanly, but we do want it to go off politically. The foreshadowing creates a decidedly mixed sense of anticipation.

Of course a more existentially oriented filmmaker as we’ve defined it would avoid cross-cutting, but perhaps a Rafi Pitts approach helps finds its aesthetic purpose through non-foreshadowing not too unlike the way a long-take filmmaker would define their aesthetic as antithetical to editing. It becomes a cinema not of the long-take especially, though it would often share long-take sympathies, but towards a refusal of foreknowledge, so that the viewer is left instead with immediate situations, and our curiosity resides not in the story as it unfolds as we try to work out its ploys, tropes and devices, but closer to an observational sense of curiosity as we wonder where a character might be going, what their flat looks like, who their friends might be. But these wouldn’t be offered even as low key anticipatory narrative: where a character would say to someone you really ought to see my flat, or I have a great friend you have to meet, but where we wonder whether we might get to see the flat in which the characters lives, might get to meet people they know. In Hou Hsiao Hsien’s The Flight of the Red Balloon it isn’t until quite late in the film that Hou reverses the angle on the main room in Juliette Binoche’s flat and we get a sense of the size of the space. In Keane, Lodge Kerrigan keeps us guessing about the character’s crisis but not as a narrative set-up where we are asked by the filmmaker to wonder about what might be wrong, but by the viewer oneself, as we muse over events that the filmmaker need never categorically reveal because he hasn’t set it up as a categorical question.

In the sort of cinema Pitts and others propose the general absence of foreshadowing lies in the absence of a question. The filmmaker who foreshadows will believe he is qualified to answer the question he proposes, and where in the process of answering it offers various clues. This is partly why the detective thriller or horror film are prime genres of foreshadowing, containing hints towards the resolution of the mystery. But its significance of course lies far beyond such genres, and can incorporate the romantic comedy, the western, the sci-fi, the gangster film and any movie where the givens of the story are premised on the possibility of categorical answers. This is perhaps true of almost all forms of prefiguring except a certain type of symbolic foreshadowing where we know that an event is pertinent to the theme, but not a given of the story. For example if Federico Fellini’s La dolce vita were a schematic romance, we might assume that the suicide early in the film would lead to central character Marcello Mastroianni finding his soul with the widow: that his empathy for her leads to love and he leaves behind his shallow existence, and the viewer would be given clues to why this is likely to be so, even perhaps before the husband’s death. Here we might see a mutual attraction between the two characters, as the film arcs the story so that their eventual couple-dom wouldn’t be troublesomely taking place over the husband’s dead body, but would somehow be closer to respect for the wife’s loneliness. The husband’s death isn’t only or especially symbolic, it also serves a clear narrative purpose. It creates the space for a character’s unequivocal moral redemption.

One offers the above to show how foreshadowing usually functions in a narratively driven film, and perhaps we should use a slightly different word to describe what so often happens in an art film based more on thematic exploration than narrative schemas. Here it might be better to talk of prefiguring over foreshadowing, even if they are often used to mean the same thing. One uses the terms not especially qualitatively. As we’ve established, Hitchcock’s use of schematic narrative was often masterly. It is more to try to differentiate contrasting approaches. If for example someone were to muse over whether Mastroianni might go off with the wife some time after the husband has died, they would be making close to a category error: an error of sensibility as they impose a schematic reading on a thematic work. We could say instead of looking at foreshadowed event it would be more useful to think of prefigured thematics.

Let us take another example: a film like Wim Wenders’ Alice in the Cities. Here is a mid-seventies film that many watching it thirty five years later see as a troublesome work chiefly because of the situation the film sets up where the young titular character’s mother leaves her with the film’s central character, a photojournalist. They are all Germans in New York, but the mother wants to stay a little longer, and she leaves her daughter to be looked after by a man she barely knows as the photojournalist return to Germany, and where he will deliver the young girl to her grandmother. Would a more recent film (post numerous paedophile scandals) and more narratively driven work perhaps play up the possible dangers involved in such an arrangement? Maybe the film wouldn’t focus initially on the man as Wenders’ film does, but on the mother and child, and create numerous scenes where the audience along with the girl wonders who this man is and whether, despite being friendly and nice, he will abuse her. The audience would be in a schematic work, wondering when he might strike, even if he never does. Such a story obviously has no interest to Wenders, as though what he wanted to do was work with an undercurrent of emotional enquiry that would leave us wondering what it is to play a parental role for someone who seems to have no direction and belief. Alice can give him temporary respite from his feelings of alienation, but this isn’t at all to say he should face up to his human and social responsibilities and become a proper father himself.  The sort of looks and glances Alice and the photojournalist share are not those of a predator and his potential prey, but those of quizzical human feelings surprisingly felt and no less surprisingly met.

What films like Alice in the Cities and La Dolce Vita ask is that feelings come out of the film more than that the viewer imposes a thought onto it. Now this can get us into some sticky areas if we try to differentiate thoughts from feelings in cinema, but if one thinks of T. S. Eliot’s ideas on the objective correlative, maybe we can move towards differentiating thought from feeling. Eliot describes the objective correlative as the means by which an artist creates a certain feeling, a chain of events that will release that necessary emotional reaction. In such an instance the events have been so arranged as to allow for it. It is a thought in the sense that the emotion has been manipulated in to being. In contrast, Wenders talks frequently of his refusal of story and consequently the refusal of a certain emotional expectation. The feeling created does not come out of engineered thought-based emotion. Are we thus claiming that all classic drama, from Euripides to Shakespeare to Chekhov are engineering emotion in their audiences? Yes, if we can drop the pejorative connotations of engineering, and see it instead as an aesthetic choice, but by the same reckoning see that in modern narrative it not be seen as an aesthetic necessity. Wenders does not expect the viewer to be asking questions about his story, so much as wondering over his theme. As he says in an essay, ‘Impossible Stories’, of Alice in the Cities, Kings of the Road and others, “Story always assumes control, it knows its course, it knows what matters, it knows where it begins and ends. Daydream is quite different; it doesn’t have ‘dramaturgical’ control. What it has is a kind of subconscious guide who wants to get on, no matter where…”

Much modern cinema has strengthened theme and weakened story, allowed the film an aspect of reverie, and a device such as foreshadowing is a storytelling dimension of narrative, rather than a thematic aspect. Wenders creates no narrative tension around the girl’s relationship with the man, even though at least superficially Wenders could have made the film so that we are aware of the possible threat that Wenders could then deny (the danger the girl could be in with this grown man), and still arrive at the emotional pay off where the girl and the man share complicity as the man briefly plays father to the child. Numerous foreshadowing devices could be offered, and consequently numerous questions in the viewer created. For example the man briefly leaves the girl alone in a cafe. Where has he gone: to phone a gangster friend; to leave her altogether; to dump her on an acquaintance? All of these would be active questions offered perhaps by a hint: a piece of paper, say, with a phone number on it. However what really seems to interest Wenders is almost a stubborn refusal of story for the purposes of developing the theme so that most of the questions we find ourselves asking are not narratively determined but thematically speculative: open rather than closed questions. If we were to wonder over what will happen to Alice, then we would be asking for the filmmaker to answer the question that we feel he has set for us. If however the filmmaker creates a space for a question but no guarantee of an answer, then the viewer cannot feel cheated because the filmmaker hasn’t set up the probability that we will receive one, and he might not set up this probability because he wants us to asks questions that do not schematically lead us to anticipate future narrative events, but to speculate over present predicaments. If the narratively driven question might have been how much danger might we suppose Alice to be in; the thematic one might be instead to ask what does it mean to be a parent in the seventies, what sort of relationships are being created where a mother can leave a child with a man she barely knows whilst pursuing another man altogether. The film doesn’t search this out in a condemnatory way, but in an enquiring one. It is though the film wants to be open both morally and narratively: as Wenders says of Alice... etc. “the English word ‘drifting’ expresses it very well. Not the shortest line between two points but a zig-zag.” It is as if the films possess also an ethical zig-zag rather than the shortest moral line between two points. When the viewer thinks of the moral horror of a stranger looking after someone’s daughter, are they not also perhaps thinking about the narrative possibilities within that horror? Is the foreshadowing here a version of the shortest line between two points, rather than the meandering musings over new ethical options?

To insistently see foreshadowing in such an instance the viewer would be missing the point of the film, and presumably be disappointed by the lack of pay off on the basis of the presumption there will be one. It is on this point we can return to our earlier references to Heidegger and Bergson. In Creative Evolution, Bergson notes that “we are made in order to act as much as, and more than, in order to think –or rather, that we follow the bent of our nature, it is in order to act that we think. It is therefore no wonder that the habits of action give their tone to those of thought, and that our mind always perceives things in the same order in which we are accustomed to picture them when we propose to act on them.” Now often what happens in foreshadowing is that we act-think; we create prospective actions within our thinking over perceived future actions within the film. But, taking into account Heidegger’s dictum that the most thought provoking thing is that we are still not thinking, can we call such speculation thinking. In an essay ‘What is Metaphysics?’, Heidegger says, “Only on the ground of the original revelation of the nothing can human existence approach and penetrate beings.” And as George Steiner proposes in his short book on the philosopher Martin Heidegger: “We certainly do not know whence we came into being, except in the most trivially physiological regard. No biology of parentage answers the real question. We do not know towards what end we have been projected into existence, except in reference to death (whose meaning and ontological status Heidegger has yet to elucidate). Yet it is just this twofold unknowing which makes the ‘thrown’ condition of human existence the more emphatic and palpable.” Foreshadowing is a closed system, based on a set of assumptions that we can predict rightly or wrongly, but in the predication lies not the open possibility of thinking, but the contained variables of the narrative. In Alice in the Cities we do not speculate on whether the central character will abuse the titular one, as we wonder in Hard Candy whether the teenage girl will kill the paedophile. In the latter we are in a schematic relationship with the story; in Alice…we observe the situation rather than second guess the plot. Hence foreshadowing has little place.

This is not at all to say that foreshadowing as it is generally used is a cheap aesthetic trick that denies thinking. After all, we introduced the term courtesy of Chekhov, and have talked of Hitchcock’s masterly use of relations, where foreshadowing proves vital. But often its arena of speculation is narrow, and can even train the viewer in this aesthetic narrowness, creating either boredom or misapprehension in the viewer. If a filmmaker offers scenes inviting thought that the viewer insistently sees foregrounding narrative and foreshadowing event, it is as though the film isn’t being watched, it is being narratively scanned.

Yet perhaps an important development in recent, loosely art house cinema is an approach that combines the open thought with the active speculation: the future narrative event one cannot but feel suspenseful over, and the meditation within that response. The Son, The Child, Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days and The Taste of Cherry are all films that create a certain expectation of outcome in the viewer. If it is not part of Wenders’ narrative ontology for us to ask whether he will adopt the girl by the end of Alice in the Cities, this type of question is very much part of the Dardennes’ Cristian Mungiu and Kiarostami’s in the films mentioned. In The Son we might muse over whether the father who lost his son to the very boy he is now training up as a carpenter, will eventually take some sort of revenge out on the boy. In The Child one wonders with more than casual curiosity to see if the titular character Bruno has sold will be in the garage next to the one where he hands over the cash as he tries to get his son back. In Four Months…do we not fret over whether the girl who has just had the abortion is okay, as the film concentrates on her friend on the other side of Bucharest? In The Taste of Cherry, might we wonder whether the character will kill himself of not?

However, while we can see the films are creating narrative expectations, does this mean that they have closed off the thought-provoking thinking we insist many more commercial films eschew? It seems not, taking into account our earlier point, where the film doesn’t want moral assumption to sit within the suspense, but instead moral ambivalence, with the filmmaker facilitating within the tension they create, a question greater than that suspensefulness. In The Taste of Cherry, Kiarostami wants within the question of will he or won’t he kill himself, the idea of what might be the reasons behind the deed, and what reasons might we ourselves have for staying alive or deciding to die. In a twofold way Kiarostami opens up the problem within the binary possibility of the character dying or not: on the one hand we never know what motivates him to seek his own death, and the film concludes in such a way that we do not know if he has taken his own life. A viewer who has invested speculatively in the film, invested in the idea of a clear answer, will be disappointed by the conclusion. But this is a problem of refusing to ‘think’, refusing to turn the speculation back onto oneself and one’s own feelings towards the notion of suicide. If we often say a film does its thinking for us, it is often in this particular area, where the filmmaker allows us to speculate over the conclusion, but insists upon the ending closing down that speculative faculty.  Kiarostami wants the viewer to keep thinking about what the character may have done beyond the diegesis, beyond the film’s running time.

In different ways, Four Months…, The Son, The Child, are also interested in creating a certain amount of ‘manipulation’, but for the purposes of opening up deeper spaces than the narrative can answer. If one watches The Son thinking chiefly about the moment when the father will surely attack the boy who has killed his son, then the film is weak on devices to cue this possibility, and most horror films would be more successful with their foreshadowing clues. However, if one wonders how a man might not only forgive but perversely become attached to the very boy responsible for killing his son, the film has moved very far away from the shortest of moral lines to a lengthy, complicated one. Similarly, in Four Months…the heroine’s willingness to prostitute herself so that the friend can afford the abortion isn’t only a great sacrifice, it contains within it an ethical horror concerning Romania under Ceausescu, and any heroic gesture is weak next to a broader culpability. There is a heroine and a villain here: the central character and the abortionist, but as he builds towards making it clear both girls will have to sleep with him, so the film wants to implicate the society, not settle for the individual victory or defeat. In The Child, meanwhile, the idea of selling one’s child doesn’t make Bruno a villain; merely a pragmatic member of a society that has lost its way, and that he is a symptom of that failure. Can he find a way back to the individual, without allowing society’s lower values to defeat him?

This does not make the films ‘issue movies’, works interested in taking a big subject like suicide, abortion, child murder and child selling; more that they find a complicated ethical dimension within their stories which creates a moral, zig-zag generating thought. Any foreshadowing the directors use, any sense that the viewer is being played by the filmmaker to elicit certain expectations, needs to find within suspense ethical questioning. In response to Damon Smith in an interview in Reverse Shot, where Smith muses over suspense elements in The Silence of Lorna, the Dardennes say: “Rather than a thriller, it’s really asking whether the character is going to go to the end of this plan. In other words, is she going to kill or not? But it’s more the moral dimension of things” that interest them.

The purpose here has been to look at the various means in which foreshadowing can be used, the manner in which some filmmakers utilize it or escape it, and how they might use it to deploy empty thought, or to create thought. If so often we say a film offers empty suspense, what does this emptiness consist of? Is it that we feel we haven’t worked hard enough at the relations between the images, haven’t been given either enough speculative space to reason out the logic at work, as we do usually get in Hitchcock, or the deeper ethical implications, as we expect and receive in Kiarostami or the Dardennes? Foreshadowing serves many purposes, but perhaps, for ours here, the most thought provoking thing is when foreshadowing provokes thinking.

 

©Tony McKibbin