Working with Deeds and Words
How do we accept that those who offer the common cliche about what constitutes proper cinema have a point while at the same time undermining, or at least, understanding, what the statement means? Many insist that the cinema should find a visual means by which convey a description, to avoid characters either explaining the action or a voice-over describing it. In How to Build a Great Screenplay, David Howard in his passages on exposition wonders how a filmmaker might convey to the audience a discussion between two brothers; how do you make clear to the audience that they are brothers and not just friends without doing so implausibly? They know they are brothers and aren't likely to bring it up in conversation just to remind themselves of this fact. Howard reckons the filmmaker or writer can create a situation that will justify the revelation: "as they argue, we discover that it's [twenty dollars] for the Mother's Day gift they bought together; but the one who doesn't want to pay is the ne'er do well who was sleeping one off in jail on Mother's Day and never got credit for the gift anyway and now doesn't want to pay up." Hence we discover they are brothers. It is clearly a crude example and might have solved the exposition problem without quite falling into obviousness, yet hardly generates much of an aesthetic. Alexander McKendrick, in his chapter in On Filmmaking, covering exposition, compares Ibsen to Simenon, seeing in the Belgian novelist a skill he believes absent in the Norwegian dramatist. In Ibsen's work, he observes someone who allows important information to open the play as the servants discuss their masters, giving the audience info not unlike the sort Howard frets over when he wonders how the audience should discover the two character are brothers. McKendrick details an exchange in a Simenon novel between a bar owner and an inspector and conveys in the dialogue what has happened, where the crime took place and the status of the individuals involved. It is a tense exchange which allows the inspector to detail what happened without merely conveying it undramatically to the audience. It is in McKendrick's terms 'active exposition': a conflict which reveals information rather than passively relating it. In the example from Ibsen there is nothing dramatically at stake in the exchange between the servants; in the Simenon example there happens to be. Howard would presumably concur, feeling that having the brothers arguing over the Mother's Day gift is much more dramatic than having, for example, the waitresses saying, as the bothers come in, here are the Wilson Brothers. The latter would be passive exposition.
Yet what if we note that just as McKendrick might have a point, seeing that Ibsen's passive exposition "was obviously quite acceptable technique...of that period", and that presumably Ibsen's greatness as a playwright lies elsewhere, active exposition can itself so often seem obvious to us no matter if it happens to be more dramatically offered. In The Psychology and Aesthetics of Cinema, Jean Mitry says: "as far as commentary is concerned, the general rules are pretty much the same as for dialogue: it must duplicate the function of the image. It must not explain what is shown but remains detached, making assessments of the events and the scenes represented. The smaller the quantity of commentary and the greater priority given to the image, the better the film." Mitry adds that filmmakers must be careful of ideas in films and of dialogue that conveys them. "Not that intelligent people do not say sensible things (intellectuals have a place in cinema just as much as cowboys), but if they express during a conversation, it can only be in a very general way..." Mitry has a fair point but he shares with both Howard and McKendrick what we may call a logophobia, one that might have its roots in the fact that cinema was silent for its first thirty years (a period that Mitry comes back to again and again in the book, originally published in 1963), and must find its ontology in that silence.
But to suggest this prejudice is worth exploring, and why we might feel that McKendrick and Howard want to resolve the problem too quickly, we can complicate the argument with several remarks from Wittgenstein. Let us take one concerning family resemblances literally. The philosopher wishes to understand the nature of games and what this says about our formulation of meaning in general. As he asks us to consider card-games, ball-games, board-games and so on, he says "for if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that." To describe their similarities and differences, Wittgenstein proposes the term family resemblances: "for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, etc. etc. overlap and criss-cross in the same way. And I shall say: 'games' form a family." (Philosophical investigations) Going back to our example from Howard, and finding a means by which to make clear that they are brothers, we could claim a third method, over and above passive and active exposition, would be family resemblance as observational exposition. If McKendrick is right that even the great Ibsen's method can seem many years later a bit tired and obvious, how much more so must this eventually be true for active exposition that is so often promoted in scriptwriting guides and central conflict theory in the notion so practised by Hollywood where you need tension between characters in every scene? While Howard reckons the problem of exposition rests in good screenwriting, could someone else not argue that it rests especially in good casting or at the very least in good acting? Think of numerous brother-castings in film, from On the Waterfront to The King of Marvin Gardens, The Sisters Brothers to We Own the Night, what matters is not only the expository aspect but also the interactions of actors we believe are brothers, either in appearance, temperament, disposition or expression. Looking at On the Waterfront again we could see that Elia Kazan is too obvious in his exposition as Brando's Terry explicitly says at one moment to his interlocutor "you was my brother Charlie", but perhaps McKendrick and Howard would say that this is ok because the film has already well-established the relationship between the pair of them. Yet if the line works well, within the context of the scene, why wouldn't it if the scene had been utilised to offer exposition too? What matters is the intonation Brando gives that would make a line that may have been offered as exposition instead contain expression. We sense they are brothers. We observe family resemblances that might not especially be physical, but that nevertheless indicate the subtle tensions of people who are affiliated not through common interest but common blood. If we have the truism that you can choose your friends but you can't choose your family, could a director not reveal partly through the fact that two people are clearly close but not friendly (as in On the Waterfront) that they are probably brothers. Equally a director could cast brothers or (sisters) in the role: there are plenty thespian siblings: Natasha and Joely Richardson, Mads and Lars Mikkelsen, Alec, Stephen, William and Daniel Baldwin, Julia and Eric Roberts. In the former instance (in making the expositional expressive) and in the latter, by making it physiognomic, a director can escape the difficulties of obvious exposition. If we were to watch a film with Julia and Eric Roberts we would be inclined to assume they are brother and sister unless the film tells us otherwise. The family resemblance is there.
Yet we are in danger of losing our point in the process of proving but an aspect of it. When Wittgenstein says that we can see numerous differences while at the same time noticing similarities, it is then a question of definition. There will be with two brothers many differences but one key similarity: that they are kin. When Howard reckons it is very important that the screenwriter conveys in clear yet un-obvious exposition that the two people are brothers we might wonder why this is so. Is it important that one has a scar on his left leg, the other a tattoo on his navel, or that they both have an A-Level in physics or chemistry and so on? In other words, what constitutes expositional necessity? What demands that we must understand the family resemblance: the fact that two people are brothers? By analogy let us imagine a scene where a character says to another that they will hide in a tunnel so that the villain won't find them. Then they go off and hide in the tunnel. It isn't especially that the dialogue has been obviously expositional; it rests on the filmmaker telling us and then showing us. If the character says he will go off and hide but we don't see him hiding there but focus instead on the villain coming along by the tunnel as we fear for the character's life, only to see that for some reason he hasn't hidden there after all, the film has created in us a fear and a false expectation. Instead of obvious exposition we have intriguing ambiguity. Where might he now be since he isn't there; and why did he tell his friend that is where he would hide? Does he not trust the friend?
Returning to Wittgenstein, we can think of a statement not from The Philosophical Investigations but an idea he expresses in his earlier and in some ways quite different work, the Tractatus Logicus Philosophocus. J. O. Urmson notes that by a famous paradox, "Wittgenstein denounces his own metaphysics and theory of language...as meaningless nonsense; for to say, for example, that language pictures facts is to try to give a picture of the pictorial relation which holds between statement and fact, which is absurd: this pictorial relation shows itself and what shows itself cannot be said." (Western Philosophy and Philosophers) One reason why we might have a fundamental problem (rather than a casually aesthetic one) with a scene where someone says they will hide in the tunnel and then does exactly that, is because it imposes language on action; it doesn't acknowledge the difference between the two. If on the other hand, the person says they will hide in the tunnel and don't, we have the proper distance between language and action and the ambiguity generated therein. It suggests while action is categorical, language is not, so if we must use language in such circumstances let it not affirm the action tautologically, but disintegrate it ambiguously. If scriptwriters, directors and script gurus all have a problem with expositional repetition in film, let us see it not only as a logophobia left over from the early years of cinema silence, but also a Wittgensteinian reservation about the difficulty of claiming words and images, language and action, are one and the same. In our example of the character who claims to hide in the tunnel but isn't to be found there as the villain searches the tunnel out, we of course have the initial suspense (he must be in the tunnel and will be about to be discovered) but we also have the relief that he isn't there accompanied by at least a couple of questions: where is he and why did he lie to his friend? There are some very important films that play up the tautological, that offer usually in voice-over what will also be shown on screen (four great examples are A Man Escapes, A Simple Story, The Man Who Sleeps and Seul contra tous), suggesting that the problem doesn't lie in tautology per se but in whether the space between what is said and what is shown is problematised or if you like subjectivised. In thee four examples the relationship between inner thought and outer world is important. In the example of someone saying they will hide in a tunnel doing so it isn't
While we will return to some of these questions, for the moment we can propose four types of exposition: passive and active, as McKendrick suggests, but also the observational and the ambiguous, while noting too how they sometimes segue into each other. It might seem that the passive is the one to avoid but this is where things can become complicated. Most are inclined to agree that the example we have given concerning the tunnel is both passive and redundant unless the character is lying. You could alter the scene by having them arguing over where to hide, which would at least make it a bit more active. It could be used for low-key dramatic irony where one says to the other don't hide in the tunnel it isn't safe and the other reckons he will be fine; it is the safest place and the villain will never find him - and then does. It doesn't at least make it redundant. But the passive can often be used very well as voice-over, as a variation in some ways of McKendrick's critique of Ibsen. Think of the way that fellow Scandinavian Lars von Trier uses both voice-over and anticipatory inter-titles in Manderlay. The inter-titles function a little like the way McKendrick describes the maids introducing us to various characters in Ibsen's plays. The voice-over meanwhile is very tautological indeed. In one scene the white heroine who after liberating the plantation from oppression finds herself drawn to one of the emancipated slaves. We see her in a foreground close-up catching her breath while in the background the former slave Timothy rides off into the distance and the voice-over reiterates what we have just witnessed. We can think too of Robert Bresson's A Man Escaped, the central character tests the weakness of the cell door's wood as we see him pushing a spoon between the gaps. In voice-over, he says it was made up of "strips of soft wood my tool could easily tackle." As we see him prodding at the door and noticing how weak it is, does this make the voice-over redundant? Both Von Trier and Bresson offer passive voice-over here and yet we could see how much weaker the latter scene would be, for example, if Bresson had made it more active: by having another character arguing with our hero about the dangers of breaking out and the central character insisting how soft the wood in the door happens to be. It might have made the exposition active but this suggests that pre-conceived claims that active is better need to be questioned.
It appears however that while active exposition might be the desired goal, passive approaches are still common. In The Way Hollywood Tells It, David Bordwell compares 'walk and talk' versus 'stand and deliver'. The latter would seem to require greater dramatic dynamism than the former as the "actors settle into fairly fixed positions," while the former can be a simple way of making the passive active by movement. As Bordwell says, we often have "a steadicam carrying us along as characters spit out exposition on the fly." You don't really want a shot/counter shot when one character is explaining to another the workings of the war room; better to have them walking through space with the commander explaining to the novice how things are done. But if you want to indicate the dangers later when the commander suggests an attack and the novice thinks it is a bad idea, stand and deliver will be more useful. The passivity in the dialogue in the first instance activates the form; the activity in the dialogue in the latter pacifies the form. It suggests there is still very much a place for the passive as long as the filmmaker finds another means by which to activate it. Here we see the passive and active serving separate purposes one for basic explanation; the other for important disagreement. The distinction between walking and talking something through, and a stand and deliver desire to thrash things out, indicates that the dramatically passive has its place and shouldn't always be absorbed into its active form. Sure, you could have the commander and the novice mildly disagreeing with each other, as it turns out the novice knows more about the tech specifics of the war room, but this would still be mild banter giving a comedic edge to the exchange. It would still be better offered in a casual walk and talk manner rather than with the forcefulness of stand and deliver.
One reason why we reference Bordwell's terms is to show that exposition isn't only an issue of the script but also the broader aspects of filmmaking. A sequence that the scriptwriter wants to jazz up because he thinks the exposition is a bit flat might be better left to the director who can give form to the obvious, to give it a visual originality that the exchange might otherwise not possess. An exaggerated version comes in Martin Scorsese's The Departed. Here we have Alec Baldwin and Mark Wahlberg from opposing departments explaining to a handful of cops the intricacies of the operation they must execute. The approach combines various elements to lay out the exposition. There is a comedic exchange between the two cops presenting the case, a series of images on a screen like a powerpoint presentation, fast pans and tracks laying out the space and emphasising the speed of thinking involved all the while questions are asked and the cops decide which questions are relevant, and which can be ignored. The script might take care of the information but if it feels like a Scorsese film it resides in the amount of aggression he puts into the form. Here we have exposition that is active in its delivery as the various characters argue and bicker, question and counter-question, but it is also forceful in the style neither quite stand and deliver nor walking and talking, it combines both by making the characters still but the camera very mobile.
Yet we have also talked about the ambiguous and the observational. We have shown how ambiguity can be created by allowing a character to offer what seems like tautological exposition as he says he will hide in the tunnel, only for us to find out he hasn't done so. Such an example can work in a thriller format where temporarily we are in the dark but where the filmmaker will later enlighten us by showing the reason he didn't hide where he claimed he would because he knew that his so-called friend and the villain were in cahoots and wished him caught or dead. The ambiguity is only as good as the story it details. But a radical example of this ambiguity comes in Last Year at Marienbad, where the voiceover actively contradicts the images we have on screen. As the male character insists that various events have taken place in the past and he explains them, so we witness images that aren't compatible with the claims he happens to be making. Like the figure who doesn't hide in the tunnel, he creates a problem for the narrative: our expectations have been countered. But while the problem in the tunnel example can be easily, narratively resolved as the screenwriter has 'cleverly' wrong-footed us all the better to set us straight later on in the story, screenwriter Alain Robbe-Grillet and director Alain Resnais create a much greater confusion for the viewer because they don't privilege one set of memories over another; the soundtrack over the image or vice versa. As the male character details what happened last year there is nothing to assure us his telling is an actual memory; it could just as easily be a wilful fantasy. The characters offer exposition into the void, an ambiguity that cannot be resolved by dramatic explanation.
But we have also talked about expository observation, with Rear Window a very famous example. The camera travels around the room making it clear to the viewer that Jefferies is an established photographer who got into an accident taking pictures and now has landed up in his sitting room looking out of his window with a broken leg. However, just as we have indicated there is simple and complex expository ambiguity, so we might notice the same is pertinent to the observational. Hitchcock allows the camera to detail the back story but the viewer is still in no doubt what they are supposed to be looking at and why. In Hong Sang Soo's The Turning Gate, he shows us a man very briefly during a boating trip and later it would appear to be the same man again who turns out to be the ex of one of the central characters. Without getting into the convolutions of the story, when the central male figure thinks back to the time when he saw the other man very briefly he is trying to work out if it is the same person. The viewer will be inclined to be doing the same there is no flashback to make sure, and Hong cast a non-professional actor in the role to keep things vague. In Michelangelo Antonioni's The Passenger, we see Maria Schneider, fleetingly in a scene early in the film, in London, but can we say for sure this is the same woman who later shows up in Barcelona? Nothing is said to suggest she is, but we are in no doubt that it is Maria Schneider playing both roles, if they are two separate roles at all. In such instances, we might watch the film looking for clues that they have acknowledged this moment (where it seems neither saw the other), if we notice that early moment with Schneider in the first place. Finally, in The Red Circle, Jean-Pierre Melville shows us Gian Maria Volonte's character sneaking into Alain Delon's boot and we assume Delon doesn't notice. Yet later he makes clear a man is in his trunk as he stands over it with a gun telling Volonte to get out. Had he seen him get in, did he hear a faint noise later? We don't know for sure but we do know undeniably that at some point before he asks Volonte to get out that he knew he was there. If Melville had gone for exposition, Volonte could have asked how he knew and Delon could have explained why. Or Melville could have made clear when Volonte gets in that Delon notices by using a shot counter shot which showed that we knew Delon knew.
All this is to say that if passive and active exposition usually offer the explicit, the observational frequently relies on the implicit, and thus also often on the ambiguous. In this sense, Rear Window is a classic example of expository cinema because it is neither passive nor active (relying not at all on language) but on observation but at the same time makes it observationally unequivocal. When thinking of Howard's example of the two brothers a director might look at Hitchcock's opening scene and wonder how to achieve the equivalent silent, observational exposition. In the other examples we give (The Turning Gate, The Passenger and The Red Circle) there is little a conventional scriptwriter will learn: the directors are generating the sort of ambiguity that Howard wants to eradicate. His principle is like that of many scriptwriting figures: make it clear without making it obvious, make it implicit but without ambiguity, and above all make it dramatic.
But what if drama ought never to be the thing, if what matters isn't the dramaturgy first of all but the problematic the drama conveys? How often have we sat in cafes or restaurants and worked out what the relationship happens to be, even how far into the relationship the couple are? If this couple sitting opposite from each other order a second coffee or drink and yet hardly seem to know each other we might assume it is a successful first date. If they sit next to each other on the couch, arm in arm, we obviously assume that they're an established couple, and the degree of affection offered might make us wonder if they have become fairly recently attached or perhaps they don't live in the same place and are reacquainting themselves. Then we notice a suitcase, and realise that these are their last moments together as one will fly off, or the first after a while apart. Our point is that a filmmaker needn't be worried about dramatising the situation but can focus chiefly on retaining for a decent period of time the mildly suspenseful ambiguity of us not knowing what the relationship is, or if it is a relationship at what stage of it the couple happen to be in. The 'dramatist' might insist that such scenes are dull and lifeless, better to spice them up with a sudden pass on that first date which the girl is offended by as she says we have only known each other an hour, or where the person with the suitcase says we have been together a year but I think this long-distance relationship isn't working and believes it best if they stop seeing each other. The dramatic replaces the observational and the active however clumsily gets deployed. "The world is the totality of facts not of things" (Tractatus) Wittgenstein says. But perhaps the point of drama is to draw together facts and things, to make the facts of life become the things of drama. When Wittgenstein reckons later that "in most cases, the meaning of a word is its use" (Philosophical Investigations) it is in many ways contrary to his earlier remarks in the Tractatus which suggests that the world is self-evident and we only need to attend to that self-evidence without letting abstractions get in the way. As David Pears says, Wittgenstein's "view about the structure of reality was that it is composed of simple objects, which he calls 'objects' leaving the qualification to be understood, and that this structure is precisely mirrored in the structure of elementary propositions." "...Propositions, are pictures"the picture is a model of reality"...Pictures are made up of elements that together constitute the picture. Each element represents an object, and the combination of elements in the picture represents the combination of objects in a state of affairs. The logical structure of the picture, whether in thought or in language, is isomorphic with the logical structure of the state of affairs which it pictures." (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) In his later work, Wittgenstein reckons no longer that the world makes sense as a picture that language resembles but instead that language should be seen as a tool because it is the language games we deploy that give meaning to our utterances. "The meaning of a phrase for us is characterised by the use we make of it. The meaning is not a mental accompaniment to the expression." (The Blue Book) Yet we can say that while the earlier argument works well for films that indicate the world is as it is; the latter approach is much better for indicating language is the means by which to give ambiguity to the world as it is. In other words, we needn't insist for our purposes that late Wittgenstein tops early Wittgenstein but instead see two approaches to understanding reality, one that the script-writing manuals so insistent on action underestimate. Going back to our example of the tunnel, a film properly focused on action won't tell us the character is going to hide there he will do it, and the friend will see him doing it. The purpose of the action is the hiding, not the telling and the film focused on action will show exactly that. The interest will reside in how well he hides and how intrepid the hunter is in trying to find him.
Both The Revenant and more especially Essential Killing are good examples of action films that work off a primitive solution-problem model where a character uses his mind for the purposes of the immediate action. When in the latter, the main character who has lost his boots in a man trap and sees a dead man with boots on we know he will soon be wearing them. This is often what we can call quick thinking and we do so partly because the space between the thought and the deed is small and the long-term consequentiality of secondary importance to the problem to hand. Of course, there can be the immediate and the consequential the difference between getting attacked by an animal that you kill in self-defence and an animal that you kill for culinary survival. But the problem-solution model is evident in each instance. The variables are minimal; the long term consequences not important. But in our tunnel example, if the author offers exposition is it is likely either due to ineptitude or that the film is absorbing into its narrative structure the manipulative-calculative over that of the problem-solution approach. If we talk about the two Wittgensteins (that the world is logical in the former instance; that the language game is consistent in the latter) then we can see that exposition needn't necessarily make a film poorer, it just depends on whether the film is interested in generating action or calculation. Putting exposition into action can be clumsily duplicative, but putting exposition into the film so that you can divide the world into action and perception, and the space between the two, can give even to an action film a complexity as it shifts from the problem-solution scenario to the manipulative-calculative as we find in our tunnel example.
We have proposed that drama is never the thing, that the filmmaker who is thinking very hard about how to make the action dramatic is perhaps thinking too little about how the world itself is potentially full of incident. We manage most of the time to find out the things we know and to get the things we need and desire without constant clashes and tensions, and we can often observe or overhear enough in a given situation to comprehend it without the event being presented to us. There may be a man who rummages in a dustbin. We assume he is a beggar scavenging, only to discover that he is taking from it a piece of wood that must have been sticking out of the bin. He then uses the wood to put through the spokes of his bicycle back wheel and takes a coffee in the cafe. We can assume he does this so someone doesn't jump on the bike and cycle away. He has presumably forgotten his bike lock, wants a coffee and the piece of wood passes for a thief deterrent effectively enough for him to get a coffee without someone cycling off on his bicycle. Our example is close to a burlesque moment (the improvisatory use of an object designed for a very different purpose that we find, for example, in Tati's films) but like many such scenes in burlesque it passes for a problem-solution situation.
In the cyclist getting a coffee we observe what is in front of our eyes. But what about when we overhear a conversation nearby? One person tells the other that their partner is cheating on them. As the cuckolded offers details so we start to wonder if the person who is having the affair with her partner is none other than the friend she is talking to. There is something in the insinuating tone the cuckold offers that seems quite different from the emotional outpouring to a friend, and we might even wonder if the cuckold might be making details up all the better to find out for sure if the friend is sleeping with her partner. We are situated nearby, and can see the cuckolded in front of us but can see also through the mirror the face of the one who seems to be cheating. We move between the two faces and see two people potentially lying as one determines to discover the truth and the other perhaps to hide it. We might not know whether the partner is having an affair at all, nor whether it is with the friend. But what we do know is that the situation is quite different from our former example: we have moved from a problem-solution to the manipulative-calculative. Yet both scenarios are cinematic without the screenwriter thinking too much about how to make them dramatic. We might even say the less drama put into the moments the better. Seeing the cyclist throwing a fit as he realises he forgot his bike lock might be dramatic but it wouldn't be adding much to the cinematic. To rely on a quickening shot-counter-shot as the cuckold becomes ever more accusatory would make the scene more dramatic but would it make it as interesting or complex? Why take from the intricacy of life and simplify it for the purposes of drama? Our examples might not be especially dramatic but we do believe both can pass for the cinematic while at the same time appearing 'realistic': they are situations we can easily witness in life.
To see exposition as an enormous problem for film is too easily to assume that exposition, on the one hand, is very important and, on the other, that it needs to be made dramatically vivid. Our claim is that more significant than mastering the conventions of exposition as dramatic form is trying to see in reality the means by which we understand information and, keeping in mind Wittgenstein's early work where he sees the world pictorially, where lies are possible but based nevertheless on the existence of things, and the later work, which sees the world as consistent in the context of the language game played, comprehending which category one happens to be working within. If we want to show the world as it is, however inventively someone might resolve a problem within it (as suggested by our bike lock example), or indicate the way the mind creates worlds (and thus generates the sort of mind games proposed in our cuckold story), then we can say the former has little need for exposition, while the latter does. But the latter does so not to explain somethin, but to call that explanation into question. It becomes active not in its dramatic force but in its ambiguous possibilities. Hence why we have seen that our four categories (the active, passive, observational and ambiguous) are only as good as the problematic the film seems to be exploring. It is partly why the most passive of uses (in Manderlay for example) can prove very active indeed as it manages to give to the film an ironic undertone that calls everything we are witnessing into question, and with good reason. Not only is von Trier asking us to muse over the artificiality of the form as he films on a soundstage, but also allows such a device to be useful for the final twist in the story. We discover that the apparently enforced slavery long after it had been banned wasn't down just to the white boss demanding forced labour but also due to a slave who in cahoots with the plantation owner reckoned it was the best way to keep things working. The voiceover contributes to an assertion that is finally countered and yet at the same time confirms the narrated nature of the film. Everything has been a ruse, and rather than merely tautologically explaining events, the film manages to offer within its narrational authority a stratagem indicating that the authority itself was all part of a determined plan. The wealthy young woman who helps the slaves emancipate doesn't realise until the end that this hasn't been a simple case of forced oppression but of deliberate control on the part of one of the black character's. Grace's high-mindedness turns out to be simple-mindedness instead as she realises the complexity of the situation too late.
We don't want to go too far into the story of Manderlay just to say that any fixed idea of what constitutes good or bad exposition will constantly come up against examples that indicate it doesn't reside in the active or passive. Also, by adding the observational and the ambiguous we can note how often the latter find their way into our lives and should thus be incorporated into our cinema. When we proposed that maybe the best way of indicating two brothers is to cast two brothers, it is to suggest that, rather than making it clear they are related by an expositional scene of the kind proposed by Howard, the film can allow us to work it out for ourselves as we so often do when we see people who resemble each other when we meet them. Finally, in invoking Wittgenstein, we don't need to agree philosophically with his earlier position or his later one, but instead see them as different modes on the world and consequently different ways in which to explore cinema. Seeing the world exactly as it is, and language having nothing to say about it except in the literal sense, has its uses when there is nothing to be added to the world, as we often find when exposition merely reiterates what is in front of our eyes evident when someone who hides in the tunnel tells his friend that is exactly what he is going to do. But when the world disappears in the face of distortions placed on top of it, some of Wittgenstein's later remarks can prove useful. "A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably." (Philosophical Investigations). In such a remark one notices many a film's plot: the means by which it ensnares us in its images that we cannot take at face value but at plot value. Going back to Howard's example of the two brothers, it shouldn't be that the film expositionally explains to us as dramatically as it can that they are two brothers; for that, better to cast people who look enough alike for it to be clear observationally. But exposition can be very useful in indicating they are brothers only for us later to find out they are not. It might be the case that they are sitting in the diner making clear they are brothers by arguing about the mother's day gift, but we later in the film find out they were arguing as brothers because they want the person at the nearby table to believe this all the better for a plan they have to rip him off. The picture of them as brothers holds us captive just as they hold the man captive, and it isn't until later that we discover they aren't brothers at all. The exposition hasn't been there to explain anything to us but to create a false picture of events that only language can later clarify when the man finds out, as the audience finds out, that they are not. In such an instance it isn't so much to make the exposition dramatic in Howard's terms, active in MacKendrick's, but to make it plotted: to instigate a false picture of the world that turns out to be a language game they have played on another character.
In this essay, we have used Wittgenstein very lightly indeed our interest hasn't been to comprehend the Austrian philosopher's thought, its nuances and intricacies, and we have only differentiated the early work from the latter for our own ends: to see that frequently exposition, whether passive or active, dramatic or otherwise, is only of importance if it works within the context of a problem rather than just as an emphatic explanation that it then tries to hide as otherwise weak dramaturgy. When Wittgenstein reckons the world is what it is and language has nothing to add to it, or that language is what it is and it dictates how we see the world, one can see the difference between a scene that wants to show us the world and a scene that wants to describe it. The problems arise not based on some principle of good or bad exposition, but whether the film wants to show the world as it is or the world as it may be interpreted. In a very good action or adventure film, one doesn't want the hero to announce how he will solve a problem in front of him, the point is to do so, and one of the ironies of the action film becomes clear when the villain explains exactly what will happen to our hero only for the hero silently to be working out his escape plan. The villain thinks that he needs a language game to explain to the hero the delights that will be visited upon him, all the while giving the hero the opportunity to work his way free. The villain involves himself in a language game that the hero rarely shares, aware that, rather than playing mind games, knowing that out of the language game being played, he can instead play for time, using the villain's words not to create a counter-world but to prove that he understands better than the villain the real one. What matters is to find the appropriate means of exposition within the context of character and situation. From the villain's perspective, when the hero works his way free, he realises he has been talking too much as he explains in expository detail what he will do to our hero, but this isn't in itself bad exposition, just bad from the perspective of the villain who talks too much. Scriptwriting manuals are unlikely to have problems with such loquacity since the convention demands that the villain won't shut up all the better so that the hero can break free of both the tenacious verbosity and the ropes, chains or whatever that keeps him incarcerated. Equally, any 'good' scriptwriting manual will tell you it is better to say, "since we were kids, I always looked after him dad said you are the oldest, remember that" than "here is my brother, Bill, he is younger than me." But maybe a really interesting script doesn't even come up against such problems that the literal trying to hide its literalness is still too literal; the action film that insists on the denouement is still too conventional.
Instead, the pressing question might be for the writer and/or director to ask what is the problematic their film addresses. Is it a problem in the world or is it a problem in language? In Terrence Malick's marvellous film, Days of Heaven, for all the use of voice-over, the problem is, from a certain perspective, in the world, not in the language. We don't to simplify the work of one of the most complex of modern Ametican filmmakers, but on paper the film could be yet another version of The Postman Aways Rings Twice, with a few twists. Bill and Abby take work on a farm in the early years of the 20th century but they pretend to be brother and sister, and in time she marries the farm owner, who, by the end of the film, the brother will kill. Yet there is nothing language does to distort our picture: Malick makes clear early on Bill and Abby are lovers, Bill reliably overhears that the farmer doesn't seem to have long to live, and when he finally kills Bill it isn't because of a fiendish plan but that the farmer has seen enough to suggest that Bill and Abby are not brother and sister. The farmer confronts him; Bill kills him, and in turn Bill is hunted down and dies too. Malick keeps asking us to see what is in front of our eyes, generating a beauty in which the story is contained as he shot the film mainly at magic hour and pays loving attention to the natural surroundings in Texas. (Albeit filmed in Canada). In contrast, Arthur Penn's very fine film, Night Moves, insists on the presence of language as characters constantly lie to detective Harry Moseby. Though the LA/Florida settings are important to the film, even more so is the cast of characters Moseby comes up against to piece together a story that ostensibly consists of a runaway daughter but incorporates various other figures in a complex smuggling ring, bringing Pre-columbian art into the US. Moseby keeps making decisions based on partial information that will leave him lost in the middle of the ocean. Malick wishes to show that language is little more than a tautological addition to the world, a properly small voice in the vastness of our being, evident in the claims the naive narrator who travels with Bill and Abby, Linda, makes as she tries to explain the nature of events and of our place in the universe. "Some sights that I saw was really spooky that it gave me goosepimples. I felt like cold hands touchin' the back of my neck and it could be the dead comin' for me or somethin'." It is as if the story falls into being but is not strong enough to dictate it, that Malick wants the strength of the world, the strength of the images he creates of the world, to override anything the story tells. When David Thomson reckons it's hard to say, finally, what this odd film is meant to mean - for the expressive powers of the visuals are intoxicating yet empty. Yet perhaps Thomson misses the point: it is the story rather than the images which are 'empty', as though no story can contain or explain them. Malick's characters and even Malick's stories are caught in an inexpressive relationship with language next to the world as it is; as if no story can dent it. As Thomson adds, I'd refer to The Thin Red Line...where the island of Guadalcanal is so elemental, so beautiful, so God-given that it is a very minor distraction that there is a war going on there. (Have you Seen...?) For Thomson, this is a negative but there seems to be in Thomson a need for narrative over a quizzical nature with the Beautiful. In Night Moves, though Penn ends with a marvellous extreme long shot so that Moseby and his boat are just a dot in the sea, a beauty of sorts, Penn and his scriptwriter Alan Sharp have created a work of proper paranoia, one that indicates that the world becomes an insecure space because of the lies people tell about it. The world isn't indifferent to Moseby; more that Moseby has got himself into an appalling situation as he tried to make sense of the various fibs of those around him. His professional need to investigate the truth to people's claims leads to him lost in the middle of the ocean, injured and desperate. The camera shows the world indifferent to him but he couldn't be indifferent to the many lies spun around him that now leaves him alone in this indifferent world. In Days of Heaven, the film cares little for exposition even if we have to admit that the eavesdropping scene where Bill hears that the farmer doesn't have long to live can be seen as a variation of it. It is the detail which leads Abby to marry the farmer so that Bill and Abby can have a better life after he dies. Yet anybody interested chiefly in the quality of exposition will see Malick as a poor filmmaker indeed: eavesdropping is one of the easiest ways in which important information can be conveyed. Malick also gives what might seem like an intrusive voiceover. Yet Malick isn't interested in generating a strong story but instead registering a moment in time, the plot the minimum he needs to frame a period in American history when times were indeed changing. Set in the years before WWI, Malick shows the burgeoning industrialisation (the factory job Bill has at the beginning of the film) with the presence of automobiles, steam engines and threshing machines contrasting with the old ways that are still present: the horse-drawn ploughing, the hand-picked corn and the milking of the goats, all contained by an elegiac atmosphere that sees the sweet yearning of times past and new times coming, and all of which nature retains an indifference towards. As Roger Ebert reckons, noting similarities with Henry James' Wing of the Dove, "Malick's purpose is not to tell a story of melodrama, but one of loss." (Roger Ebert) The historical temporality of the story is more important than the drama within it exposition is thus of little importance and to criticise the film for its weak use would be to miss the point. Indeed, even history falls into a bigger problematic still; that of the Beautiful which requires an essay initself. We might even see that it combines both of Wittgenstein's philosophical positions: the world as it is and the language game imposed upon it, hardly an unlikely proposition if we recall that Malick abandoned a PhD that was to combine Kierkegaard, Heidegger and Wittgenstein, as Jon Baskin remarks in 'The Perspective of Terrence Malick'.
This essay is perhaps finally less an argument made than a work determined to complicate matters, to try and escape from presuppositions about exposition and what constitutes good and bad examples of it. A bad example from one point of view can be an inventive example from another. If we assume a categorical notion of the good and the bad, of passive and dramatic, we may miss many of the most innovative examples of its use, or the radical nature of its rejection. One of the dangers of seeing it as a necessary evil that must then be hidden as much as possible is that we are too easily on the side of the dramatic rather than comprehending the nature of reality and the reality of nature. The dramatic use may well be impressive but is that good enough initself? Shouldn't we wish to know what is behind the use of it in the first place?
© Tony McKibbin