Cinematic Dimensions

10/04/2020

Structures of Narrative Experience

Here is a question. What allows Quint (Robert Shaw) to be killed off near the end of Jaws? If we think rather than the specific nature of the story, and instead of the slightly more abstract notion of generic rules, albeit allied to character psychology and functional sociology, we can see why of the three leading characters, Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), Brody (Roy Scheider) and Quint, it is the latter that can die. Each we could argue is dimensionally different: Quint is one-dimensional, Hooper two-dimensional and Brody three-dimensional. The more dimensionally evident a character the less likely it is that they will meet their demise and this can be exemplified in moments of shock when a character who would seem two or three-dimensional meets what we might call a one-dimensional death. If for example Brody had been killed off early in the film instead of the little boy on the inflatable raft it wouldn’t have only been dramatically shocking but narratively shocking too. There we were following the family and professional life of this police chief who has moved up to New England after years working in New York and suddenly he is bumped off fifteen minutes into the film.  Director Steven Spielberg would have invested an awful lot of time and the audience some investment of identification only to have a burgeoning three-dimensional character meeting a one-dimensional demise. The film would have to recover from that loss even if it may then have proved central to the story: that Hooper would come into town, and help the locals rid themselves of the shark. But this would mean reinvesting some of the emotion that we have invested in one and building it up again through another — from Brody to Hooper — while Spielberg’s skill here is in seeing each emotional identification as necessary as the telling demands. When for example Woody Harrelson dies in No Country for Old Men, or when the janitor (Scatman Crothers) gets killed in The Shining, the scenes are shocking because we don’t expect them narratively. Harrelson has been hired to help find the suitcase Josh Brolin has found in the Coens’ film, and in Kubrick’s it looks like Crothers is coming back to the hotel to help save the wife and child from crazy Jack’s cabin fever. This needn’t mean in both instances the characters would succeed, but the Coens and Kubrick allow them to fail much more quickly than the development of situation and character would conventionally demand. They’re of course one-dimensional characters killed promptly, but the directors allow for enough identification with their predicament to suggest a narrative arc which they then promptly curtail. If Spielberg had killed off Brody after so clearly developing his character, then this would have been breaking the rules rather than playing by them (and of course Marion Crane’s death in Psycho remains the ultimate example of this rule-breaking), but Spielberg plays very precisely by them but makes sure that the sequence where the young boy dies is very carefully micro-arced. While in The Shining, Kubrick shows the immense efforts the janitor makes to get out to the snowbound hotel on a hunch that the young Danny is in trouble, only to have him killed almost as soon as he enters the hotel, Spielberg demands no prior identification at all in the scene where the young boy gets killed by the shark early in the film, though he does allow for a degree of scenic identification: Spielberg gives the boy a mini-arc within the sequence, as he opens with the camera following the boy as he gets out of the water and persuades his mother to let him go back in for another ten minutes, before he disappears out of the frame presumably to pick up the yellow inflatable we will see him rush into the water with a minute later. As the boy exits the frame, the camera stops on Brody, his wife and their friends, as we see Brody fretful of a shark attack and various people speaking to him, questioning him and getting in his line of vision. Throughout the sequence, Spielberg and editor Verna Fields cut away to various possible victims, from a girl who jokingly screams, to a dog that paddles in the water, to of course the young boy, Alex, on the inflatable who will indeed be the one to meet his death. Cinematically, it is inevitable as Spielberg introduces him in the first shot, and brings out most completely the director’s skill here for colour emphasis and metonymic power. Throughout the sequence red and especially yellow have been prominent, colours of danger and fear, threat and forewarning. We see the dog owner in a yellow polo shirt, the flashes of yellow clothing that pass in front of the long lens Spielberg utilises, the inflatable is of course yellow, and we see a yellow towel the older gentlemen Harry dries himself with and the yellow hat the boy’s mother wears.  Red is chiefly present in Alex’s shorts and the blood that will be released when near the end of the sequence the boy is killed. At the very end of the scene, as everybody gets out of the water and the mother moves towards the shore, we see just the ragged burst yellow inflatable.

It is masterfully done. The young Alex has been absolutely no more (and actually a little less) than a one-dimensional character, clearly serving a specific function which is to make obvious that the waters are not at all safe despite the local mayor’s insistence that they are. Some might insist how can Alex be dimensionally the equivalent of Quint since he appears in no more than one scene while Quint is given many and is vital to the second half of the movie, given plenty back story as he shows us his wounds. Perhaps this is where we can talk about the functional rather than the dimensional. When a critic refers to one-dimensional characters it is usually on the basis that there are dimensions to them that the film has failed to bring out, but it is surely daft to ask that young Alex be dimensional at all. His purpose is to be functional, albeit very dramatically. Films are full of functional characters, from the waiter who attends to the table of our leading characters, to the service station employee who loads the car up with petrol. Sometimes they will hint at a dimension within that functionality but they are almost part of the mise en scene at worst or a necessary but very minor aspect of the narrative at best. The girl who screams and generates a false alarm thus has a lower function than Alex, whose loss we momentarily grieve through the mother who has lost a son, and whose death galvanizes the plot: the very dimensional Hooper arrives in town shortly after the incident. 

But let us propose that though Hooper is important to the film he needn’t be three-dimensional either. We know a bit about him; that he comes from a wealthy family and funds most of the shark research himself. We know too that he has been willing to risk life and limb to further his research as he compares wounds with Quint. But we know very little about his personal life beyond the money his family has and if he is more dimensional than Quint it rests on his sense of humour and gift for getting on with people. When he first turns up at Brody’s door he arrives with a couple of bottles of wine, red and white, joking about what wine is best served with the food that he hasn’t been invited to eat. Ravenous, he finishes off some leftovers. Hooper is also thirty years younger than Quint and has a lot of shark research left in him; Quint is an embittered old sea-farer who has never quite got over his survival complex: during the war he was caught in shark-infested waters and while many around him died, he didn’t. He has a reason to catch and kill the Great White they are after but not much purpose in surviving the experience. Yet both Quint and Hooper pale in dimensional significance next to Brody, who has a wife and two children, a new job in the town where he has to prove himself, and a guilty conscience after he might have been able to do more to warn the people not to go into the water. It may be that the final responsibility lay with the mayor, but when the grieving mother is looking for someone to slap, Brody receives it. We can also include Brody’s fear of water, that if for Quint there is little point in surviving the ordeal with the Great White, Brody can do nothing but grow from the experience. 

Now of course if Brody felt impotent on dry land as he is at the mercy of the mayor, so he is all at sea on the ocean as he proves incompetent and hazardous to the others. In one scene he is throwing meat into the sea to attract the shark and while chatting to Hooper and Quint the head of the shark comes out as Brody quickly retreats. In another scene, he ties a rope that leaves Hooper tethered, with Brody unaware exactly of what he is doing until he sees Hooper squeezed between the shark in the sea tugging at the rope and where he has tied it. Here is a man who has much to learn and phobias he needs to conquer. It is Brody who will kill the shark just as it is Quint who gets eaten by it, but while all this is going on where is Hooper? Descending a couple of scenes earlier in a cage that proves hopelessly unable to keep the shark at bay for more than a moment, Hooper, who hoped to use a drug to pacify the shark, gets knocked about a bit before escaping the cage and disappearing behind the oceanic equivalent of a bush. Will he survive we might wonder, but Spielberg asks us to put such thoughts aside while he concentrates on Brody and Quint doing what they can to take out the Great White. Managing to ram a lengthy explosive into the fish’s mouth, after a few tries eventually Brody fires off a bullet that explodes the cylinder and blows up the Great White in a pool of blood so much more extensive than the meagre puncturings we have seen thus far. But where is Hooper? Spielberg understands the mechanics of suspense to know that since Hooper is of no use to the attempts of Quint and Brody, that there is no need to cut to see if is making his way back to the surface of the water or not. When he finally does, when he appears out of the ocean, the deed has been done and the two surviving men can whoop with delight. Hooper might ask about Quint, but Quint has been the final slab of meat thrown in the shark’s direction, more than a function but one-dimensional enough to provide the film with one more grisly demise before the conclusion. The three-dimensional Brody and the two-dimensional Hooper live in a carefully arced tale that suggests this could be the start of a beautiful friendship. If two is company and three is a crowd as we have witnessed three men in a boat, then Spielberg ends where many a seventies film more or less started: on a buddy film of two men bonding.

One needn’t be cynical about Jaws, even if there are comments enough from the director suggesting it wouldn’t be unfair to treat it as a manipulative crowd-pleaser. “It was just the moving, working parts of suspense and terror with just enough character development…” (‘Primal Scream’) What matters is that even if the characterisation is thin, it happens to be well-modulated. When Spielberg adds “at one point in the movie you hate Scheider, then you hate Shaw, then you hate Dreyfuss, within the roles they’re playing, and then you like them again” we can disagree. Do we ever really dislike Scheider or Dreyfuss, and do we ever really like Shaw? Part of the dimensionality Spielberg offers rests on seeing that while Brody acts as well as he can, and Hooper can be a little cocky in the face of breathtaking ignorance, Quint has more chips than he has shoulders. When earlier on Quint grabs Hooper’s hands he says, “you have city hands, Mr Hooper, you have been counting money all your life”, Hooper replies “I don’t need this working-class hero crap.” In the broader scheme of thing maybe Quint has a point but in the narrower one this is pure prejudice and one-upmanship. Quint doesn’t gain many sympathy points and thus Spielberg can eventually put him in the mouth of the beast. 

And yet while we have acknowledged dimensional characterisation is also cinematically central to a character’s survival, cinema offers numerous examples of three-dimensional characters dying by the end of the closing credits. We can think of Tom Hanks dead at the end of Saving Private Ryan, Mel Gibson likewise in Braveheart, Leonardo di Caprio in Titanic; and before them, and in better films, Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy. Yet usually such deaths are sacrificial and more importantly take place at the end of the film — any emotional investment is entirely justified within the diegesis, even if they won’t be given a life beyond it. Some might wonder whether it is wise to regard Gibson’s William Wallace in Braveheart as a three-dimensional character but our purpose isn’t to see in such three-dimensionality characterisational depth but instead narrational demand and expectation. We don’t doubt that numerous two-dimensional characters (like Faye Dunaway in Chinatown, Christopher Walken in The Deer Hunter and Diane Keaton in Manhattan) are more multi-faceted than Gibson’s Wallace happens to be, but for the purposes of functional, essentially American narration, Wallace has a complete role in the narrative while Dunaway’s Mrs Mulwray doesn’t. It isn’t just that she dies at the end of the film (we have already established that this is no hindrance to three-dimensionality), it is that her role within it is to be the mystery Gittes tries to solve, the emotional mystery to him as he falls in love with her, that her father, Cross, appears to be as a socio-political mystery. If we say that Gittes is three-dimensional, Mulwray two and Cross one it is to say that this is how many a noir functions. The Lady from Shanghai, for example has Mike, Elsa and Bannister — the fall guy hero, the femme fatale and the husband. Many noirs work off a similar triangle, but it is hardly one of equal sides.  

By comprehending an aspect of dimensionality in film one can understand better what our expectations happen to be concerning the characters we believe will survive or die, the character we expect to follow or to leave behind. It is partly what formalist literary criticism concerned itself with in the early years of the 20th century. Viewing the work of Boris Tomashevsky, A. J. Greimas and Vladimir Propp, Tzvetan Todorov looks at  the distinction between functions and attributes, with Propp noting that “the appelations (and also the attributes) of the characters change, their actions or functions do not change”, which Todorov then sees as generic rather than general: thus “the constancy of the variability of a predicate can be established only within a genre (in Propp’s case the Russian fairytale).” (Poetics of Prose) Todorov sees too in Propp’s work a determined need to differentiate between the syntagmatic (what follows what), with the paradigmatic (what goes with what) and to indicate that the latter doesn’t impact on the former. In other words, the structures remain the same even if what you attach to them changes. Todorov reckons, though, that “we must oppose Propp’s rejection of any paradigmatic perspective.” (Poetics of Prose) For Todorov, what goes with what can change what follows what. If in Propp’s example “one of the members of a family is away from home” it would surely depend on who is away from home that would lead us to the next stage of narration. If it is the father this might be a story of an exposed family exploited and abused, with the father returning to find the family home burnt down, his wife raped, his children terrified. The next stage might be that he leaves again to find the perpetrators. If instead the wife is away from home and she doesn’t return the father might go looking for her, leave the children alone and finds the mother dead, returns and finds the children dead too. The father seeks revenge. Here we can see that whether the mother or father is away from home the revenge narrative comes into play. But what if the wife has left home because the husband has badly treated her and she must find her bother who will come back and kill the husband and be a loving uncle to the children? The revenge story is still there but in a very different form. Todorov wants to use formalist research for the purposes of invention as much as repetition and concludes by saying, “the simple relation of successive facts does not constitute a narrative: these facts must be organized, which is to say, ultimately, that they have elements in common. But if all the elements are in common, there is no longer anything to recount. Now, transformation, represents precisely a synthesis of differences and resemblance.” (The Poetics of Prose

Todorov wants to rescue narrative from formulae while acknowledging there are of course common elements. But to pay too much attention to the similarities is to say little and arrive at predictability; to say there are no common elements would be to arrive at randomness. Thus if someone were to insist that all stories must have a protagonist and an antagonist, an inciting action, a goal and a resolution this is too prescriptive. But if we were to claim that narration is open to the absolutely random it wouldn’t any longer be narrative. The tension between the causality that narrative needs and the freedom the art work demands allows for a constant sense of change without insisting that we offer prescriptive formulas or claiming insistent and complete aesthetic freedom. In looking at dimensionality in film, we can’t deny there it will be a formalist inflection; Todorov, however, helps us to see that this needn’t be a restrictive one.

Returning to our main argument, we may briefly follow a one or two-dimensional character but if that person takes over from a character we assumed we are still generally following a new expectation is created, quite distinct than a much more general crosscutting approach that means we know very quickly that we are following more than character, that there may be two, three or more three-dimensional characters. In a romantic comedy like Last Chance Harvey, the film crosscuts back and forth between Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson, making us well aware that it will move between the pair of them throughout the film. In Crash, Paul Haggis will follow the lives of Matt Dillon, Thandie Newton and a handful of others in a network narrative that shows how they are linked even if in each instance Hoffman and Dillon might be closer than others to what constitutes the central character. To open the question up to international cinema, a recent and in many ways not especially impressive film, By the Grace of God, about various grown men who want a Catholic priest who abused them many years earlier ejected from the church, initially follows a forty year-old banker (Melvil Popaud) who wishes to pursue the case against the priest, before picking up on a second character’s story, and finally moving onto a third character’s experiences. The film brings in the first character into the second character’s story, and the first and second character in the third character’s story, but in each act of the narrative one of the characters has the leading role: we have three three-dimensional characters in the one film, but with the first and second characters no more than one or two-dimensional from the point of view of the other’s narrative. In one scene, the leading character from the first meets up with the leading character from the second, along with another ‘one-dimensional’ character and we might wonder whether we will walk down the street with Popaud, or stay with the second (Denis Minochet). We stay with the second as the film makes clear that now he is the leading character in the drama during this stage of the story. Perhaps one reason why we may wonder whether he is now our leading character in this section rests on how this chapter (which is too strong a word for scenes that segue into each other based on the developing case) opens: the police turn up at the door of an older couple, interview them and then the mother goes and visits her son, who shows initial reluctance. If he’d retained that first resistance Minochet wouldn’t have become our leading character; that he gets ferociously involved means he takes over this mid-section of the film. The film doesn’t seem to want to play what we might call dimensional tricks with us, as we find in Psycho, Pulp Fiction and A History of Violence, but it does insist that we can’t quite know at certain moments who our leading character happens to be.

In Psycho, we follow Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) for the first hour of the film before she is killed by Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), who becomes our leading character, a weak young man running the motel hounded by a mother who orders him around but turns out to be dead, a skeleton in the basement but a vivid figure in Norman’s damaged mind. Hitchcock gives Marion three-dimensionality before removing her from the action: as she escapes from Phoenix with her boss’s cash hoping for a new life with her married lover, Marion might be a thief and hoping to poach another man from his wife, but we are on her side, feeling her fret when she briefly sees her boss on the street just as she is leaving town, and later when a cop stops her on the highway. When she is dead and Norman takes over, he might seem more sympathetic a character than Marion as Hitchcock presents him as a feeble figure doing his mother’s bidding. Marion, though, was a more solid character, a woman comfortable in her own skin, wise to her own attractiveness, and aware of the magnitude of her deed, but that sympathy goes only so far: on paper a woman who steals cash and wants another man’s husband won’t be instantly likeable. But she is more than agreeable enough for her death to be a shock; frequently in film, when someone isn’t very sympathetic, even if they have been given plenty of screen time, their death isn’t too troubling. Think of any horror film which has a group of teenagers gathering at a log cabin who one by one who is bumped off. On the other hand, characters who haven’t been given a great deal of screen time can create a high degree of compassion:  we can recall the numerous buddy deaths in films: Jeff Daniels in Speed, Anthony Edwards in Top Gun, George Dzundza in Basic Instinct, Martin Sheen in The Departed. Their deaths are shocking chiefly because they are likeable; if they were obnoxious we would expect them to get their just desserts; instead, they are deaths that stick in our throat — they offer moments that galvanize the plot and add to our sense of righteousness. In The Departed, for example, the villains toss Sheen’s body off a high-rise car park, a terrible action done to a decent character hardly leaves the viewer indifferent and that discrepancy (between a nice person and an awful deed) can lead to a lot of moral steam pushing the film into its third act. 

Thus we must never underestimate the moral dimension to dimensionality. Hitchcock, however, doesn’t play up Marion’s goodness, perhaps aware that to kill her off he required a small degree of ambivalence on the viewer’s part towards her character. When Francois Truffaut, interviewing the director at length, reckons “in Psycho one begins by being scared for the girl who’s a thief, and later on one is scared for a killer, and, finally, when one learns that this killer has a secret, one hopes he will be caught just in order to get the full story!” Hitchcock replies, “I doubt whether the identification is that close.” (Hitchcock) Hitchcock well knew the danger of identification, saying earlier in the book that in Sabotage he “committed a grave error on my part.” “I made a serious mistake in having the little boy carry the bomb. A character who unknowingly carries a bomb around as if it were an ordinary package is bound to work up great suspense in the audience. The boy was involved in a situation that got him too much sympathy from the audience, so that when the bomb exploded and he was killed, the public was resentful.”(Hitchcock) Elsewhere, he insisted, “that episode in Sabotage was a direct negation of the invisible cloak of protection worn by sympathetic characters in motion pictures. In addition, because the audience knew the film can contained a bomb and the boy did not, to permit the bomb to explode was a violation of the rule forbidding a direct combination of suspense and terror, of forewarning and surprise.” (Hitchcock on Hitchcock) Twenty years later with Psycho he was unlikely to make the same mistake again, so that though Marion is much more our leading character than the little boy, the ambivalent sympathy we feel towards her means that, while we are properly shocked by her demise, we aren’t outraged. 

It is here we can see our ideas about dimensionality contain an aspect that stops them being schematic. We could have a character who is more or less a function in the narrative who, generating moral sympathy in the audience, generates moral outrage when he is killed, as we find with the little boy in Sabotage. He is a functional character who happens to find himself with a moral dimension. This would seem to be the mistake Hitchcock made.  When Scorsese kills Sheen off in The Departed, or Tony Scott allows Anthony Edwards to get killed in Top Gun, the directors well know that any outrage is useful to their own ends; to kill off a sympathetic character with no consequence, to generate a sympathetic death without working through the importance of that death on the audience who might be hoping for revenge for the deed, would be seen in most narrative cinema as an error, and that is exactly how Hitchcock views it. Of course, another filmmaker would see it differently, and reckon Hitchcock’s mistake less as an error than an opportunity. Is this not what Kubrick does when Jack Nicholson so quickly takes out Crothers in The Shining, or when the Coens build up Harrelson’s character as someone who really might be able to help get Brolin out of his sticky situation only for the directors to have him quickly killed in No Country for Old Men? It is all very well for a filmmaker to know that he or she is working with one-dimensional, two-dimensional and three-dimensional characters, as well as functional ones, but there is also an ethical system of sympathy that accompanies the generation of character which the filmmaker cannot easily ignore, even if it is one he or she deliberately eschews. 

If Hitchcock shows a character deliberately using the little boy in Sabotage to carry a bomb that goes off, Tarantino in Pulp Fiction shows two of its leading characters, hitmen Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent Vega (John Travolta) killing a drug dealer they have in the back of the car. We know very little of this character, his two friends have been killed by the hitmen, and he remains just another guy who we are pretty neutral towards. Vincent’s gun accidentally goes off and the boy’s brains are all over the back seat. It is a semi-comedic moment as Vincent and Jules bicker about what to do next and, unlike Hitchcock, Tarantino knows he has pulled off a moment that takes the audience with them. It is closer to Psycho than to Sabotage. When Hitchcock says of Psycho that it isn’t that we identify with Norman Bates, “but the viewer becomes attached to Perkins because of the care with which he wipes away all the traces of his crime. It’s tantamount to admiring a job well done” (Hitchcock), by the same reckoning, in Pulp Fiction, the boy’s death becomes irrelevant next to the mess he has created. There Jules and Vincent are driving in broad daylight with brains splattered against the back window and blood all over Jules’s clothing. It is not a good look and a highly suspicious one. The boy has been a minor character; Jules and Vincent major ones and what matters is how they will get out of their conundrum. It plays like a combination of Sabotage and Psycho, a cruel death and a messy operation that needs to be dealt with. The main difference is that Hitchcock thought he made a mistake killing an innocent boy in Sabotage and was willing to risk his identificatory centre in Psycho, while Tarantino tests the audience’s moral compass — seeing how easily we will laugh at the stupidity of the incident and how quickly we return to the concerns of Jules and Vince. The boy in the backseat is a function and Tarantino shows just how cruelly this can be manifest when our concern rapidly moves on. 

The scene most clearly calling into question the identificatory in Pulp Fiction, though, is when Butch (Bruce Willis) comes back to his apartment and sees a gun on the sideboard, realises someone is in the bathroom who intends to kill him. At this stage of a film that plays with narrative cause and consequence, as it tells the story in various segments and from different characters’ point of view, we are in Butch’s story. He knows there are people after him but nevertheless feels he has to go back home to retrieve a watch of immense sentimental value, and what does he find when he gets there but someone clearly out to kill him. As he stands waiting with the gun in his hands for the assassin to exit the toilet, who comes out but Vincent as Butch blows him away. Here we have two three-dimensional characters but Vincent is no longer three-dimensional within Butch’s story because our position is with Butch and we want him to take out the man in the toilet who wishes to kill him. That it turns out to be a three -dimensional character from another section of the film creates a momentary crisis of identification as Butch then takes him out. 

Pulp Fiction offers this conflict of perspective through playing with chronology and narrative point of view. A History of Violence does so by doing no more than giving us new information. In the first half of the film, Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is a loving father of two kids in a happy marriage who runs a local coffee bar in Indiana. One day a couple of thugs walk into the bar, create havoc but Stall sorts them out with great finesse. The newspeople report the incident, and gangsters come calling determined to get Stall to admit that he is actually Joey, a former gangster from Philadelphia whose brother is a key figure on the coast. For the first half of the film, we might assume the hoodlums are looking for trouble, but when we again see Stall’s prowess taking out villains we might wonder whether he is masquerading under a false identity. He swears to his wife that he is Tom and not Joey, but 54 minutes into a 92-minute film, looking like he is about to be killed, he tells the man pointing a gun in his face that he should have taken him out back in Philadelphia. A moment afterwards Tom/Joey’s son shoots the gangster dead and Tom acknowledges he happens to be Joey too. As he lies in hospital, recovering from his injuries, his wife (Maria Bello) asks him to tell her the truth. What did she hear him say, Tom asks, and his wife says it wasn’t what she heard it was what she saw: Tom turning into Joey in front of her eyes. When she says did he kill for money or for pleasure, he insists Joey did that, not Tom. Here we have a three-dimensional character vacillating between two selves, turning the other into the one-dimensional figure in the process. By admitting he is Joey he turns Tom into a character he has been playing for the last fifteen or more years, an upstanding man who married a lawyer and had two children. But he is determined to suggest that Joey was never really three-dimensional, in the conventional sense of the term, that by creating Tom he was allowed to be himself. 

If we are likely to believe him it rests partly on cinema’s enduring ability to make us believe the evidence in front of our eyes even when there might be one or two things that raise questions about that validity. If the camera never lies the person speaking nevertheless often does so. We generally have no problem with film characters lying to us, but we are much angrier if we feel the film is lying to us. That can be seen as an audio-visual cheat rather than a characterisational lie, and Hitchcock again comes to mind, admitting that in Stage Fright , "I did one thing in that picture that I never should have done; I put in a flashback that was a lie.” Hitchcock adds, “strangely enough, in movies, people never object if a man is shown telling a lie…” (Hitchcock) While other films since have utilised lying flashbacks (most obviously The Usual Suspects which has a suspect spinning yarns in custody), Hitchcock is generally right: people accept characters lying all the time but are less willing to allow the film itself to do so. Imagine if when Tom initially tells his wife that of course he isn’t Joey and explains in detail his life before he met her, with the film flashing back to a series of scenes showing him as Tom in his youth and early years of manhood, only to inform us that he made it up later in the film, we would be unlikely to share the wife’s anger with him; we’d now be angry with the film. This suggests that we take the audio-visual very seriously indeed, while we take characters much less so, since as Hitchcock notes, they lie all the time in films. Tom has been lying to his wife throughout their marriage and throughout the prior fifty minutes of the film, but the film has also been convincing us (without lying to us as Hitchcock’s flashback does), that he is Tom Stall, a decent, fair-minded, brave and diligent figure who loves his family and wants to do the best he can for them all. We are as disbelieving as Bello because we too have trusted what is in front of our eyes. Joey can’t become a three-dimensional character even when he goes to Philadelphia to deal with his brother in the film’s last section, evident in the film’s oddly lighter tone and slightly Tarantinoesque approach to violence. It isn’t just that Tom takes out three henchmen quickly; even more that we have his brother looking on with an exasperated expression, amazed at the incompetence of his team, and that his bother is still errant and can very much take care of himself. We say Tarantinoesque but this is short-hand for distanciated absurdity that goes back to and passes through Leone, De Palma, Verhoeven, Scorsese and Lynch, manifesting itself in various ways that can create the surprisingly brutal (the Scorsese of Good Fellas; the Lynch of Lost Highway) or the knowingly wry (Leone, Tarantino, De Palma, Verhoeven). 

Director David Cronenberg perhaps doesn’t want us to take this Joey too seriously, and wishes for the viewer to see this environment as an artificial world that those without means feel forced into and that cinema so often exploits as a generic force. His brother has obviously made good but he isn’t surrounded by a loving family but by henchmen. He is a man who tells Tom/Joey that he never saw the point in getting married, but appears too keen to offer an argument for the solitary life as though filling the void of a meaningless one. The first hour of the film shows how a life can be built; the last third how a life can be shattered — but Cronenberg suggests that the very nature of cinematic identification is consistent with Tom’s approach to his own existence. If the film remains a serious work is rests partly on showing us that Tom’s life is valuable as a life rather than a precursor to a narrative twist. Tom is three-dimensional enough (in the conventional sense) in that first hour for Joey to remain a one-dimensional figure who has to do no more than take care of business in Philly before returning to the family fold. True, Cronenberg makes clear, in a wonderful ending that shows the family around the dinner table and Tom reentering that fold after his temporary absence in Philadelphia, but also his temporary presence as Joey in Indiana, that a void has been created, a void quite different from his brother’s but a quiet chasm nevertheless. Can the family close it we wonder, can Tom remain convincingly the three-dimensional figure we have taken him to be, or will the family increasingly see Joey in his actions? The film suggests that Joey has been put to bed but who will they all be dreaming of when dad comes to mind? Shortly before, in Philadelphia, his brother asks Tom/Joey: ‘when you dream, are you still Joey?” Early in the film, the daughter wakes up screaming, and Tom says it has just been a bad dream and that everything is okay. Will she be so convinced next time we might wonder, with Cronenberg suggesting that while her father told her earlier in the film when she woke up that there are no monsters, they potentially have one in the family’s midst. Much will depend on how his wife, son and daughter view him: do they see Tom Stall or Joey from Philadelphia? It is really our question too, following a hero whose personality hasn’t morphed into someone else altogether (as we find in David Lynch’s Lost Highway) but where he has become two characters simultaneously. Yet though we hear about how he ripped somebody’s eye out with barbed wire, though he was clearly a tough and vicious mob man, this is what we hear about but not what we see. A lengthy flashback detailing Joey’s life might have tipped the three-dimensionality into two-dimensionality, with Joey becoming prominent enough for Tom to fade, for his wife to realise this and to become the heroine of the piece as her family is under siege by her ex-husband. That isn’t the narrative Cronenberg tells, so whatever ambiguity the film’s ending may possess as the family must decided whether to incorporate him back into it, the film itself does so by virtue of the time it gives to Tom versus Joey.  We may speculate ourselves on how much Joey is still in Tom but the film’s form indicates that there is far less of the former than the latter. 

Our purpose here has been to take commonly held phrases like one-dimensional and three-dimensional and ask what they mean not as critical commonplaces but as formal properties within narrative. A person isn’t three-dimensional because of the back story one gives them and the complexity of their dilemmas: there is no difference between the most lazily written of superheroes and the most nuanced of character dramas. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care whether a film is obvious or subtle, superficially or immersively acted, fantastically abstract or sociologically precise. There is a world of a difference between Spiderman and Taxi Driver but from a certain point of view, and that is the perspective we have been exploring, there isn’t. Peter Parker is no less a three-dimensional figure than Bickle for the purposes of holding the story together, just as the villain in Spiderman is as one-dimensional as Sport in Taxi Driver. Spiderman needs the one- dimensional villain so that Spiderman can overcome various obstacles, and Bickle needs Sport so that he can kill him and save Iris from prostitution. From most angles, this is a horrible oversimplification of the latter for the purposes of comparing it with the former, but imagine if Bickle had been shot dead by Sport two-thirds of the way through the film, it would have lost its dimensionality and would have had to find it elsewhere, perhaps in two-dimensional Iris avenging Bickle’s death. The character we thought was three-dimensional slides into two-dimensionality and another figure carries the narrative freight.  This is exactly what could have happened in A History of Violence if Joey had become more prominent than Tom and his wife realised she had to protect her family. The film would become not a cautionary tale about pronounced masculinity but a feminist account of how a woman will protect her own even from the man she loves. 

What we want to make absolutely clear is that this is not any sort of template for writing films. We couldn’t be further away than Robert McKee or Syd Field and numerous others who talk up the basics. Our proposition is suggestive, even subversive; a tentative way of looking at the components of film without falling into a priori notions of what makes for solid film structure. When John Yorke breaks down good scriptwriting into its various components like the protagonist, the antagonist, the desire, external and internal desire, the resolution and so on, we would be willing to accept that many films work off such assumptions but there is no reason why they have to do so. Yorke says, “your character has a problem she must solve…you’ll see this shape (or its tragic counterpart) working at some level in every story…or it might represent a reaction against it (Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend) - but it will be there.” (Guardian). Perhaps. What we think is more useful than insisting what stories must have or merely resist, in an act of counter-intuitive provocation, is to think about how we feel if we imagine the dimensionality of the story differently. Imagine if Brody and Hooper were left dead at the end of Jaws, and it was Quint who survived, lying exhausted on the shore. Jaws would have become a much bleaker piece of cinema, a one-dimensional man left carrying the three-dimensional focus. Such a film would have felt closer to the despair of many seventies films rather than a move towards its recuperation as ideologically hopeful. As Robert Philip Kolker says, “…Spielberg is the great fantasist of recuperation, every loving son, calling home to find out how things are and assuring the family that everything will be fine.” Speaking specifically of Jaws and its ending, Kolker reckons “Quint is too old-fashioned, too single-minded, and too much the individual to emerge the unadorned hero. He is too old and, simultaneously, too paternal and too mean to survive.” (The Cinema of Loneliness) It is this type of constant and ongoing modulation of our expectations, of what we expect and what counters that expectation which leads us to think about character dimensionality, to see that the surprise we feel, the happiness or sadness involved in a viewing experience isn’t always about the depth of the characters but just as readily about what their role in the given structure of the experience happens to be.

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

Cinematic Dimensions

Structures of Narrative Experience

Here is a question. What allows Quint (Robert Shaw) to be killed off near the end of Jaws? If we think rather than the specific nature of the story, and instead of the slightly more abstract notion of generic rules, albeit allied to character psychology and functional sociology, we can see why of the three leading characters, Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), Brody (Roy Scheider) and Quint, it is the latter that can die. Each we could argue is dimensionally different: Quint is one-dimensional, Hooper two-dimensional and Brody three-dimensional. The more dimensionally evident a character the less likely it is that they will meet their demise and this can be exemplified in moments of shock when a character who would seem two or three-dimensional meets what we might call a one-dimensional death. If for example Brody had been killed off early in the film instead of the little boy on the inflatable raft it wouldn't have only been dramatically shocking but narratively shocking too. There we were following the family and professional life of this police chief who has moved up to New England after years working in New York and suddenly he is bumped off fifteen minutes into the film. Director Steven Spielberg would have invested an awful lot of time and the audience some investment of identification only to have a burgeoning three-dimensional character meeting a one-dimensional demise. The film would have to recover from that loss even if it may then have proved central to the story: that Hooper would come into town, and help the locals rid themselves of the shark. But this would mean reinvesting some of the emotion that we have invested in one and building it up again through another from Brody to Hooper while Spielberg's skill here is in seeing each emotional identification as necessary as the telling demands. When for example Woody Harrelson dies in No Country for Old Men, or when the janitor (Scatman Crothers) gets killed in The Shining, the scenes are shocking because we don't expect them narratively. Harrelson has been hired to help find the suitcase Josh Brolin has found in the Coens' film, and in Kubrick's it looks like Crothers is coming back to the hotel to help save the wife and child from crazy Jack's cabin fever. This needn't mean in both instances the characters would succeed, but the Coens and Kubrick allow them to fail much more quickly than the development of situation and character would conventionally demand. They're of course one-dimensional characters killed promptly, but the directors allow for enough identification with their predicament to suggest a narrative arc which they then promptly curtail. If Spielberg had killed off Brody after so clearly developing his character, then this would have been breaking the rules rather than playing by them (and of course Marion Crane's death in Psycho remains the ultimate example of this rule-breaking), but Spielberg plays very precisely by them but makes sure that the sequence where the young boy dies is very carefully micro-arced. While in The Shining, Kubrick shows the immense efforts the janitor makes to get out to the snowbound hotel on a hunch that the young Danny is in trouble, only to have him killed almost as soon as he enters the hotel, Spielberg demands no prior identification at all in the scene where the young boy gets killed by the shark early in the film, though he does allow for a degree of scenic identification: Spielberg gives the boy a mini-arc within the sequence, as he opens with the camera following the boy as he gets out of the water and persuades his mother to let him go back in for another ten minutes, before he disappears out of the frame presumably to pick up the yellow inflatable we will see him rush into the water with a minute later. As the boy exits the frame, the camera stops on Brody, his wife and their friends, as we see Brody fretful of a shark attack and various people speaking to him, questioning him and getting in his line of vision. Throughout the sequence, Spielberg and editor Verna Fields cut away to various possible victims, from a girl who jokingly screams, to a dog that paddles in the water, to of course the young boy, Alex, on the inflatable who will indeed be the one to meet his death. Cinematically, it is inevitable as Spielberg introduces him in the first shot, and brings out most completely the director's skill here for colour emphasis and metonymic power. Throughout the sequence red and especially yellow have been prominent, colours of danger and fear, threat and forewarning. We see the dog owner in a yellow polo shirt, the flashes of yellow clothing that pass in front of the long lens Spielberg utilises, the inflatable is of course yellow, and we see a yellow towel the older gentlemen Harry dries himself with and the yellow hat the boy's mother wears. Red is chiefly present in Alex's shorts and the blood that will be released when near the end of the sequence the boy is killed. At the very end of the scene, as everybody gets out of the water and the mother moves towards the shore, we see just the ragged burst yellow inflatable.

It is masterfully done. The young Alex has been absolutely no more (and actually a little less) than a one-dimensional character, clearly serving a specific function which is to make obvious that the waters are not at all safe despite the local mayor's insistence that they are. Some might insist how can Alex be dimensionally the equivalent of Quint since he appears in no more than one scene while Quint is given many and is vital to the second half of the movie, given plenty back story as he shows us his wounds. Perhaps this is where we can talk about the functional rather than the dimensional. When a critic refers to one-dimensional characters it is usually on the basis that there are dimensions to them that the film has failed to bring out, but it is surely daft to ask that young Alex be dimensional at all. His purpose is to be functional, albeit very dramatically. Films are full of functional characters, from the waiter who attends to the table of our leading characters, to the service station employee who loads the car up with petrol. Sometimes they will hint at a dimension within that functionality but they are almost part of the mise en scene at worst or a necessary but very minor aspect of the narrative at best. The girl who screams and generates a false alarm thus has a lower function than Alex, whose loss we momentarily grieve through the mother who has lost a son, and whose death galvanizes the plot: the very dimensional Hooper arrives in town shortly after the incident.

But let us propose that though Hooper is important to the film he needn't be three-dimensional either. We know a bit about him; that he comes from a wealthy family and funds most of the shark research himself. We know too that he has been willing to risk life and limb to further his research as he compares wounds with Quint. But we know very little about his personal life beyond the money his family has and if he is more dimensional than Quint it rests on his sense of humour and gift for getting on with people. When he first turns up at Brody's door he arrives with a couple of bottles of wine, red and white, joking about what wine is best served with the food that he hasn't been invited to eat. Ravenous, he finishes off some leftovers. Hooper is also thirty years younger than Quint and has a lot of shark research left in him; Quint is an embittered old sea-farer who has never quite got over his survival complex: during the war he was caught in shark-infested waters and while many around him died, he didn't. He has a reason to catch and kill the Great White they are after but not much purpose in surviving the experience. Yet both Quint and Hooper pale in dimensional significance next to Brody, who has a wife and two children, a new job in the town where he has to prove himself, and a guilty conscience after he might have been able to do more to warn the people not to go into the water. It may be that the final responsibility lay with the mayor, but when the grieving mother is looking for someone to slap, Brody receives it. We can also include Brody's fear of water, that if for Quint there is little point in surviving the ordeal with the Great White, Brody can do nothing but grow from the experience.

Now of course if Brody felt impotent on dry land as he is at the mercy of the mayor, so he is all at sea on the ocean as he proves incompetent and hazardous to the others. In one scene he is throwing meat into the sea to attract the shark and while chatting to Hooper and Quint the head of the shark comes out as Brody quickly retreats. In another scene, he ties a rope that leaves Hooper tethered, with Brody unaware exactly of what he is doing until he sees Hooper squeezed between the shark in the sea tugging at the rope and where he has tied it. Here is a man who has much to learn and phobias he needs to conquer. It is Brody who will kill the shark just as it is Quint who gets eaten by it, but while all this is going on where is Hooper? Descending a couple of scenes earlier in a cage that proves hopelessly unable to keep the shark at bay for more than a moment, Hooper, who hoped to use a drug to pacify the shark, gets knocked about a bit before escaping the cage and disappearing behind the oceanic equivalent of a bush. Will he survive we might wonder, but Spielberg asks us to put such thoughts aside while he concentrates on Brody and Quint doing what they can to take out the Great White. Managing to ram a lengthy explosive into the fish's mouth, after a few tries eventually Brody fires off a bullet that explodes the cylinder and blows up the Great White in a pool of blood so much more extensive than the meagre puncturings we have seen thus far. But where is Hooper? Spielberg understands the mechanics of suspense to know that since Hooper is of no use to the attempts of Quint and Brody, that there is no need to cut to see if is making his way back to the surface of the water or not. When he finally does, when he appears out of the ocean, the deed has been done and the two surviving men can whoop with delight. Hooper might ask about Quint, but Quint has been the final slab of meat thrown in the shark's direction, more than a function but one-dimensional enough to provide the film with one more grisly demise before the conclusion. The three-dimensional Brody and the two-dimensional Hooper live in a carefully arced tale that suggests this could be the start of a beautiful friendship. If two is company and three is a crowd as we have witnessed three men in a boat, then Spielberg ends where many a seventies film more or less started: on a buddy film of two men bonding.

One needn't be cynical about Jaws, even if there are comments enough from the director suggesting it wouldn't be unfair to treat it as a manipulative crowd-pleaser. "It was just the moving, working parts of suspense and terror with just enough character development..." ('Primal Scream') What matters is that even if the characterisation is thin, it happens to be well-modulated. When Spielberg adds "at one point in the movie you hate Scheider, then you hate Shaw, then you hate Dreyfuss, within the roles they're playing, and then you like them again" we can disagree. Do we ever really dislike Scheider or Dreyfuss, and do we ever really like Shaw? Part of the dimensionality Spielberg offers rests on seeing that while Brody acts as well as he can, and Hooper can be a little cocky in the face of breathtaking ignorance, Quint has more chips than he has shoulders. When earlier on Quint grabs Hooper's hands he says, "you have city hands, Mr Hooper, you have been counting money all your life", Hooper replies "I don't need this working-class hero crap." In the broader scheme of thing maybe Quint has a point but in the narrower one this is pure prejudice and one-upmanship. Quint doesn't gain many sympathy points and thus Spielberg can eventually put him in the mouth of the beast.

And yet while we have acknowledged dimensional characterisation is also cinematically central to a character's survival, cinema offers numerous examples of three-dimensional characters dying by the end of the closing credits. We can think of Tom Hanks dead at the end of Saving Private Ryan, Mel Gibson likewise in Braveheart, Leonardo di Caprio in Titanic; and before them, and in better films, Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy. Yet usually such deaths are sacrificial and more importantly take place at the end of the film any emotional investment is entirely justified within the diegesis, even if they won't be given a life beyond it. Some might wonder whether it is wise to regard Gibson's William Wallace in Braveheart as a three-dimensional character but our purpose isn't to see in such three-dimensionality characterisational depth but instead narrational demand and expectation. We don't doubt that numerous two-dimensional characters (like Faye Dunaway in Chinatown, Christopher Walken in The Deer Hunter and Diane Keaton in Manhattan) are more multi-faceted than Gibson's Wallace happens to be, but for the purposes of functional, essentially American narration, Wallace has a complete role in the narrative while Dunaway's Mrs Mulwray doesn't. It isn't just that she dies at the end of the film (we have already established that this is no hindrance to three-dimensionality), it is that her role within it is to be the mystery Gittes tries to solve, the emotional mystery to him as he falls in love with her, that her father, Cross, appears to be as a socio-political mystery. If we say that Gittes is three-dimensional, Mulwray two and Cross one it is to say that this is how many a noir functions. The Lady from Shanghai, for example has Mike, Elsa and Bannister the fall guy hero, the femme fatale and the husband. Many noirs work off a similar triangle, but it is hardly one of equal sides.

By comprehending an aspect of dimensionality in film one can understand better what our expectations happen to be concerning the characters we believe will survive or die, the character we expect to follow or to leave behind. It is partly what formalist literary criticism concerned itself with in the early years of the 20th century. Viewing the work of Boris Tomashevsky, A. J. Greimas and Vladimir Propp, Tzvetan Todorov looks at the distinction between functions and attributes, with Propp noting that "the appelations (and also the attributes) of the characters change, their actions or functions do not change", which Todorov then sees as generic rather than general: thus "the constancy of the variability of a predicate can be established only within a genre (in Propp's case the Russian fairytale)." (Poetics of Prose) Todorov sees too in Propp's work a determined need to differentiate between the syntagmatic (what follows what), with the paradigmatic (what goes with what) and to indicate that the latter doesn't impact on the former. In other words, the structures remain the same even if what you attach to them changes. Todorov reckons, though, that "we must oppose Propp's rejection of any paradigmatic perspective." (Poetics of Prose) For Todorov, what goes with what can change what follows what. If in Propp's example "one of the members of a family is away from home" it would surely depend on who is away from home that would lead us to the next stage of narration. If it is the father this might be a story of an exposed family exploited and abused, with the father returning to find the family home burnt down, his wife raped, his children terrified. The next stage might be that he leaves again to find the perpetrators. If instead the wife is away from home and she doesn't return the father might go looking for her, leave the children alone and finds the mother dead, returns and finds the children dead too. The father seeks revenge. Here we can see that whether the mother or father is away from home the revenge narrative comes into play. But what if the wife has left home because the husband has badly treated her and she must find her bother who will come back and kill the husband and be a loving uncle to the children? The revenge story is still there but in a very different form. Todorov wants to use formalist research for the purposes of invention as much as repetition and concludes by saying, "the simple relation of successive facts does not constitute a narrative: these facts must be organized, which is to say, ultimately, that they have elements in common. But if all the elements are in common, there is no longer anything to recount. Now, transformation, represents precisely a synthesis of differences and resemblance." (The Poetics of Prose)

Todorov wants to rescue narrative from formulae while acknowledging there are of course common elements. But to pay too much attention to the similarities is to say little and arrive at predictability; to say there are no common elements would be to arrive at randomness. Thus if someone were to insist that all stories must have a protagonist and an antagonist, an inciting action, a goal and a resolution this is too prescriptive. But if we were to claim that narration is open to the absolutely random it wouldn't any longer be narrative. The tension between the causality that narrative needs and the freedom the art work demands allows for a constant sense of change without insisting that we offer prescriptive formulas or claiming insistent and complete aesthetic freedom. In looking at dimensionality in film, we can't deny there it will be a formalist inflection; Todorov, however, helps us to see that this needn't be a restrictive one.

Returning to our main argument, we may briefly follow a one or two-dimensional character but if that person takes over from a character we assumed we are still generally following a new expectation is created, quite distinct than a much more general crosscutting approach that means we know very quickly that we are following more than character, that there may be two, three or more three-dimensional characters. In a romantic comedy like Last Chance Harvey, the film crosscuts back and forth between Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson, making us well aware that it will move between the pair of them throughout the film. In Crash, Paul Haggis will follow the lives of Matt Dillon, Thandie Newton and a handful of others in a network narrative that shows how they are linked even if in each instance Hoffman and Dillon might be closer than others to what constitutes the central character. To open the question up to international cinema, a recent and in many ways not especially impressive film, By the Grace of God, about various grown men who want a Catholic priest who abused them many years earlier ejected from the church, initially follows a forty year-old banker (Melvil Popaud) who wishes to pursue the case against the priest, before picking up on a second character's story, and finally moving onto a third character's experiences. The film brings in the first character into the second character's story, and the first and second character in the third character's story, but in each act of the narrative one of the characters has the leading role: we have three three-dimensional characters in the one film, but with the first and second characters no more than one or two-dimensional from the point of view of the other's narrative. In one scene, the leading character from the first meets up with the leading character from the second, along with another 'one-dimensional' character and we might wonder whether we will walk down the street with Popaud, or stay with the second (Denis Minochet). We stay with the second as the film makes clear that now he is the leading character in the drama during this stage of the story. Perhaps one reason why we may wonder whether he is now our leading character in this section rests on how this chapter (which is too strong a word for scenes that segue into each other based on the developing case) opens: the police turn up at the door of an older couple, interview them and then the mother goes and visits her son, who shows initial reluctance. If he'd retained that first resistance Minochet wouldn't have become our leading character; that he gets ferociously involved means he takes over this mid-section of the film. The film doesn't seem to want to play what we might call dimensional tricks with us, as we find in Psycho, Pulp Fiction and A History of Violence, but it does insist that we can't quite know at certain moments who our leading character happens to be.

In Psycho, we follow Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) for the first hour of the film before she is killed by Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), who becomes our leading character, a weak young man running the motel hounded by a mother who orders him around but turns out to be dead, a skeleton in the basement but a vivid figure in Norman's damaged mind. Hitchcock gives Marion three-dimensionality before removing her from the action: as she escapes from Phoenix with her boss's cash hoping for a new life with her married lover, Marion might be a thief and hoping to poach another man from his wife, but we are on her side, feeling her fret when she briefly sees her boss on the street just as she is leaving town, and later when a cop stops her on the highway. When she is dead and Norman takes over, he might seem more sympathetic a character than Marion as Hitchcock presents him as a feeble figure doing his mother's bidding. Marion, though, was a more solid character, a woman comfortable in her own skin, wise to her own attractiveness, and aware of the magnitude of her deed, but that sympathy goes only so far: on paper a woman who steals cash and wants another man's husband won't be instantly likeable. But she is more than agreeable enough for her death to be a shock; frequently in film, when someone isn't very sympathetic, even if they have been given plenty of screen time, their death isn't too troubling. Think of any horror film which has a group of teenagers gathering at a log cabin who one by one who is bumped off. On the other hand, characters who haven't been given a great deal of screen time can create a high degree of compassion: we can recall the numerous buddy deaths in films: Jeff Daniels in Speed, Anthony Edwards in Top Gun, George Dzundza in Basic Instinct, Martin Sheen in The Departed. Their deaths are shocking chiefly because they are likeable; if they were obnoxious we would expect them to get their just desserts; instead, they are deaths that stick in our throat they offer moments that galvanize the plot and add to our sense of righteousness. In The Departed, for example, the villains toss Sheen's body off a high-rise car park, a terrible action done to a decent character hardly leaves the viewer indifferent and that discrepancy (between a nice person and an awful deed) can lead to a lot of moral steam pushing the film into its third act.

Thus we must never underestimate the moral dimension to dimensionality. Hitchcock, however, doesn't play up Marion's goodness, perhaps aware that to kill her off he required a small degree of ambivalence on the viewer's part towards her character. When Francois Truffaut, interviewing the director at length, reckons "in Psycho one begins by being scared for the girl who's a thief, and later on one is scared for a killer, and, finally, when one learns that this killer has a secret, one hopes he will be caught just in order to get the full story!" Hitchcock replies, "I doubt whether the identification is that close." (Hitchcock) Hitchcock well knew the danger of identification, saying earlier in the book that in Sabotage he "committed a grave error on my part." "I made a serious mistake in having the little boy carry the bomb. A character who unknowingly carries a bomb around as if it were an ordinary package is bound to work up great suspense in the audience. The boy was involved in a situation that got him too much sympathy from the audience, so that when the bomb exploded and he was killed, the public was resentful."(Hitchcock) Elsewhere, he insisted, "that episode in Sabotage was a direct negation of the invisible cloak of protection worn by sympathetic characters in motion pictures. In addition, because the audience knew the film can contained a bomb and the boy did not, to permit the bomb to explode was a violation of the rule forbidding a direct combination of suspense and terror, of forewarning and surprise." (Hitchcock on Hitchcock) Twenty years later with Psycho he was unlikely to make the same mistake again, so that though Marion is much more our leading character than the little boy, the ambivalent sympathy we feel towards her means that, while we are properly shocked by her demise, we aren't outraged.

It is here we can see our ideas about dimensionality contain an aspect that stops them being schematic. We could have a character who is more or less a function in the narrative who, generating moral sympathy in the audience, generates moral outrage when he is killed, as we find with the little boy in Sabotage. He is a functional character who happens to find himself with a moral dimension. This would seem to be the mistake Hitchcock made. When Scorsese kills Sheen off in The Departed, or Tony Scott allows Anthony Edwards to get killed in Top Gun, the directors well know that any outrage is useful to their own ends; to kill off a sympathetic character with no consequence, to generate a sympathetic death without working through the importance of that death on the audience who might be hoping for revenge for the deed, would be seen in most narrative cinema as an error, and that is exactly how Hitchcock views it. Of course, another filmmaker would see it differently, and reckon Hitchcock's mistake less as an error than an opportunity. Is this not what Kubrick does when Jack Nicholson so quickly takes out Crothers in The Shining, or when the Coens build up Harrelson's character as someone who really might be able to help get Brolin out of his sticky situation only for the directors to have him quickly killed in No Country for Old Men? It is all very well for a filmmaker to know that he or she is working with one-dimensional, two-dimensional and three-dimensional characters, as well as functional ones, but there is also an ethical system of sympathy that accompanies the generation of character which the filmmaker cannot easily ignore, even if it is one he or she deliberately eschews.

If Hitchcock shows a character deliberately using the little boy in Sabotage to carry a bomb that goes off, Tarantino in Pulp Fiction shows two of its leading characters, hitmen Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent Vega (John Travolta) killing a drug dealer they have in the back of the car. We know very little of this character, his two friends have been killed by the hitmen, and he remains just another guy who we are pretty neutral towards. Vincent's gun accidentally goes off and the boy's brains are all over the back seat. It is a semi-comedic moment as Vincent and Jules bicker about what to do next and, unlike Hitchcock, Tarantino knows he has pulled off a moment that takes the audience with them. It is closer to Psycho than to Sabotage. When Hitchcock says of Psycho that it isn't that we identify with Norman Bates, "but the viewer becomes attached to Perkins because of the care with which he wipes away all the traces of his crime. It's tantamount to admiring a job well done" (Hitchcock), by the same reckoning, in Pulp Fiction, the boy's death becomes irrelevant next to the mess he has created. There Jules and Vincent are driving in broad daylight with brains splattered against the back window and blood all over Jules's clothing. It is not a good look and a highly suspicious one. The boy has been a minor character; Jules and Vincent major ones and what matters is how they will get out of their conundrum. It plays like a combination of Sabotage and Psycho, a cruel death and a messy operation that needs to be dealt with. The main difference is that Hitchcock thought he made a mistake killing an innocent boy in Sabotage and was willing to risk his identificatory centre in Psycho, while Tarantino tests the audience's moral compass seeing how easily we will laugh at the stupidity of the incident and how quickly we return to the concerns of Jules and Vince. The boy in the backseat is a function and Tarantino shows just how cruelly this can be manifest when our concern rapidly moves on.

The scene most clearly calling into question the identificatory in Pulp Fiction, though, is when Butch (Bruce Willis) comes back to his apartment and sees a gun on the sideboard, realises someone is in the bathroom who intends to kill him. At this stage of a film that plays with narrative cause and consequence, as it tells the story in various segments and from different characters' point of view, we are in Butch's story. He knows there are people after him but nevertheless feels he has to go back home to retrieve a watch of immense sentimental value, and what does he find when he gets there but someone clearly out to kill him. As he stands waiting with the gun in his hands for the assassin to exit the toilet, who comes out but Vincent as Butch blows him away. Here we have two three-dimensional characters but Vincent is no longer three-dimensional within Butch's story because our position is with Butch and we want him to take out the man in the toilet who wishes to kill him. That it turns out to be a three -dimensional character from another section of the film creates a momentary crisis of identification as Butch then takes him out.

Pulp Fiction offers this conflict of perspective through playing with chronology and narrative point of view. A History of Violence does so by doing no more than giving us new information. In the first half of the film, Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is a loving father of two kids in a happy marriage who runs a local coffee bar in Indiana. One day a couple of thugs walk into the bar, create havoc but Stall sorts them out with great finesse. The newspeople report the incident, and gangsters come calling determined to get Stall to admit that he is actually Joey, a former gangster from Philadelphia whose brother is a key figure on the coast. For the first half of the film, we might assume the hoodlums are looking for trouble, but when we again see Stall's prowess taking out villains we might wonder whether he is masquerading under a false identity. He swears to his wife that he is Tom and not Joey, but 54 minutes into a 92-minute film, looking like he is about to be killed, he tells the man pointing a gun in his face that he should have taken him out back in Philadelphia. A moment afterwards Tom/Joey's son shoots the gangster dead and Tom acknowledges he happens to be Joey too. As he lies in hospital, recovering from his injuries, his wife (Maria Bello) asks him to tell her the truth. What did she hear him say, Tom asks, and his wife says it wasn't what she heard it was what she saw: Tom turning into Joey in front of her eyes. When she says did he kill for money or for pleasure, he insists Joey did that, not Tom. Here we have a three-dimensional character vacillating between two selves, turning the other into the one-dimensional figure in the process. By admitting he is Joey he turns Tom into a character he has been playing for the last fifteen or more years, an upstanding man who married a lawyer and had two children. But he is determined to suggest that Joey was never really three-dimensional, in the conventional sense of the term, that by creating Tom he was allowed to be himself.

If we are likely to believe him it rests partly on cinema's enduring ability to make us believe the evidence in front of our eyes even when there might be one or two things that raise questions about that validity. If the camera never lies the person speaking nevertheless often does so. We generally have no problem with film characters lying to us, but we are much angrier if we feel the film is lying to us. That can be seen as an audio-visual cheat rather than a characterisational lie, and Hitchcock again comes to mind, admitting that in Stage Fright , I did one thing in that picture that I never should have done; I put in a flashback that was a lie." Hitchcock adds, "strangely enough, in movies, people never object if a man is shown telling a lie..." (Hitchcock) While other films since have utilised lying flashbacks (most obviously The Usual Suspects which has a suspect spinning yarns in custody), Hitchcock is generally right: people accept characters lying all the time but are less willing to allow the film itself to do so. Imagine if when Tom initially tells his wife that of course he isn't Joey and explains in detail his life before he met her, with the film flashing back to a series of scenes showing him as Tom in his youth and early years of manhood, only to inform us that he made it up later in the film, we would be unlikely to share the wife's anger with him; we'd now be angry with the film. This suggests that we take the audio-visual very seriously indeed, while we take characters much less so, since as Hitchcock notes, they lie all the time in films. Tom has been lying to his wife throughout their marriage and throughout the prior fifty minutes of the film, but the film has also been convincing us (without lying to us as Hitchcock's flashback does), that he is Tom Stall, a decent, fair-minded, brave and diligent figure who loves his family and wants to do the best he can for them all. We are as disbelieving as Bello because we too have trusted what is in front of our eyes. Joey can't become a three-dimensional character even when he goes to Philadelphia to deal with his brother in the film's last section, evident in the film's oddly lighter tone and slightly Tarantinoesque approach to violence. It isn't just that Tom takes out three henchmen quickly; even more that we have his brother looking on with an exasperated expression, amazed at the incompetence of his team, and that his bother is still errant and can very much take care of himself. We say Tarantinoesque but this is short-hand for distanciated absurdity that goes back to and passes through Leone, De Palma, Verhoeven, Scorsese and Lynch, manifesting itself in various ways that can create the surprisingly brutal (the Scorsese of Good Fellas; the Lynch of Lost Highway) or the knowingly wry (Leone, Tarantino, De Palma, Verhoeven).

Director David Cronenberg perhaps doesn't want us to take this Joey too seriously, and wishes for the viewer to see this environment as an artificial world that those without means feel forced into and that cinema so often exploits as a generic force. His brother has obviously made good but he isn't surrounded by a loving family but by henchmen. He is a man who tells Tom/Joey that he never saw the point in getting married, but appears too keen to offer an argument for the solitary life as though filling the void of a meaningless one. The first hour of the film shows how a life can be built; the last third how a life can be shattered but Cronenberg suggests that the very nature of cinematic identification is consistent with Tom's approach to his own existence. If the film remains a serious work is rests partly on showing us that Tom's life is valuable as a life rather than a precursor to a narrative twist. Tom is three-dimensional enough (in the conventional sense) in that first hour for Joey to remain a one-dimensional figure who has to do no more than take care of business in Philly before returning to the family fold. True, Cronenberg makes clear, in a wonderful ending that shows the family around the dinner table and Tom reentering that fold after his temporary absence in Philadelphia, but also his temporary presence as Joey in Indiana, that a void has been created, a void quite different from his brother's but a quiet chasm nevertheless. Can the family close it we wonder, can Tom remain convincingly the three-dimensional figure we have taken him to be, or will the family increasingly see Joey in his actions? The film suggests that Joey has been put to bed but who will they all be dreaming of when dad comes to mind? Shortly before, in Philadelphia, his brother asks Tom/Joey: 'when you dream, are you still Joey?" Early in the film, the daughter wakes up screaming, and Tom says it has just been a bad dream and that everything is okay. Will she be so convinced next time we might wonder, with Cronenberg suggesting that while her father told her earlier in the film when she woke up that there are no monsters, they potentially have one in the family's midst. Much will depend on how his wife, son and daughter view him: do they see Tom Stall or Joey from Philadelphia? It is really our question too, following a hero whose personality hasn't morphed into someone else altogether (as we find in David Lynch's Lost Highway) but where he has become two characters simultaneously. Yet though we hear about how he ripped somebody's eye out with barbed wire, though he was clearly a tough and vicious mob man, this is what we hear about but not what we see. A lengthy flashback detailing Joey's life might have tipped the three-dimensionality into two-dimensionality, with Joey becoming prominent enough for Tom to fade, for his wife to realise this and to become the heroine of the piece as her family is under siege by her ex-husband. That isn't the narrative Cronenberg tells, so whatever ambiguity the film's ending may possess as the family must decided whether to incorporate him back into it, the film itself does so by virtue of the time it gives to Tom versus Joey. We may speculate ourselves on how much Joey is still in Tom but the film's form indicates that there is far less of the former than the latter.

Our purpose here has been to take commonly held phrases like one-dimensional and three-dimensional and ask what they mean not as critical commonplaces but as formal properties within narrative. A person isn't three-dimensional because of the back story one gives them and the complexity of their dilemmas: there is no difference between the most lazily written of superheroes and the most nuanced of character dramas. This doesn't mean we shouldn't care whether a film is obvious or subtle, superficially or immersively acted, fantastically abstract or sociologically precise. There is a world of a difference between Spiderman and Taxi Driver but from a certain point of view, and that is the perspective we have been exploring, there isn't. Peter Parker is no less a three-dimensional figure than Bickle for the purposes of holding the story together, just as the villain in Spiderman is as one-dimensional as Sport in Taxi Driver. Spiderman needs the one- dimensional villain so that Spiderman can overcome various obstacles, and Bickle needs Sport so that he can kill him and save Iris from prostitution. From most angles, this is a horrible oversimplification of the latter for the purposes of comparing it with the former, but imagine if Bickle had been shot dead by Sport two-thirds of the way through the film, it would have lost its dimensionality and would have had to find it elsewhere, perhaps in two-dimensional Iris avenging Bickle's death. The character we thought was three-dimensional slides into two-dimensionality and another figure carries the narrative freight. This is exactly what could have happened in A History of Violence if Joey had become more prominent than Tom and his wife realised she had to protect her family. The film would become not a cautionary tale about pronounced masculinity but a feminist account of how a woman will protect her own even from the man she loves.

What we want to make absolutely clear is that this is not any sort of template for writing films. We couldn't be further away than Robert McKee or Syd Field and numerous others who talk up the basics. Our proposition is suggestive, even subversive; a tentative way of looking at the components of film without falling into a priori notions of what makes for solid film structure. When John Yorke breaks down good scriptwriting into its various components like the protagonist, the antagonist, the desire, external and internal desire, the resolution and so on, we would be willing to accept that many films work off such assumptions but there is no reason why they have to do so. Yorke says, "your character has a problem she must solve...you'll see this shape (or its tragic counterpart) working at some level in every story...or it might represent a reaction against it (Jean-Luc Godard's Weekend) - but it will be there." (Guardian). Perhaps. What we think is more useful than insisting what stories must have or merely resist, in an act of counter-intuitive provocation, is to think about how we feel if we imagine the dimensionality of the story differently. Imagine if Brody and Hooper were left dead at the end of Jaws, and it was Quint who survived, lying exhausted on the shore. Jaws would have become a much bleaker piece of cinema, a one-dimensional man left carrying the three-dimensional focus. Such a film would have felt closer to the despair of many seventies films rather than a move towards its recuperation as ideologically hopeful. As Robert Philip Kolker says, "...Spielberg is the great fantasist of recuperation, every loving son, calling home to find out how things are and assuring the family that everything will be fine." Speaking specifically of Jaws and its ending, Kolker reckons "Quint is too old-fashioned, too single-minded, and too much the individual to emerge the unadorned hero. He is too old and, simultaneously, too paternal and too mean to survive." (The Cinema of Loneliness) It is this type of constant and ongoing modulation of our expectations, of what we expect and what counters that expectation which leads us to think about character dimensionality, to see that the surprise we feel, the happiness or sadness involved in a viewing experience isn't always about the depth of the characters but just as readily about what their role in the given structure of the experience happens to be.


© Tony McKibbin