One narrative mechanism that offers the potential for the audience to feel truly transported into another world, familiar or unfamiliar as it may be, is having someone in the story to represent our perspective. This is an old trick of fiction: insert a Nick Carraway-type person for other characters to confide in, and through these interactions we are able to learn about other, more important or interesting characters who are eager to spill their guts to someone who will just sit there and listen to them for a minute. They come alive knowing they have an audience.
Granted, they typically don’t know how large an audience they have, since in the case of a movie, the talkative character’s audience will be as large as the number of people watching the movie. In the context of the story, the moments between the speaker and the listener enjoy a state of limbo between the privacy of their one-on-one conversation and the public dimension of this person essentially speaking to the audience. It’s the combination of the voyeuristic thrill of witnessing a private moment with a kind of indirect address that makes this mechanism effective when executed well. In a novel, this public aspect is not as apparent, I don’t think. In film, there’s inevitably a certain awareness of the public aspect, as there tends to be an inherent communal quality to the cinematic experience, even when watching from home to a certain extent. Or at least that’s what tends to take precedence when compared to the intrinsically intimate nature of a novel.
I’ve spoken before about how movies kind of put the audience in the role of the introvert, observing the world before them without having an opportunity to contribute to any of its outcomes. We are passive viewers, ultimately. We’re called to actively engage with what we’re presented, but for the duration of the actual experience of witnessing events unfold, we have no impact. So the characters I want to speak a little bit about presently are not those who represent us on the screen and fulfill our desire for action, usually moral action, in a movie; rather, this is about those characters who actually reflect our powerlessness and ability only to receive information about the folks we come in contact with. They’re a special kind of quiet character who essentially serves as the story’s fourth wall: when others are addressing them, they’re covertly addressing us.
To illustrate this type of character I’m going to look at two movies from the previous decade, one considered more of a “high art” movie and one not so much. Let’s start with the ‘B’ film: 2005’s ostensibly raunchy but in fact kind of thoughtful and sweet comedy Waiting (it gets stylized as “Waiting…” but who’s got time for all those ellipses?). The conceit of this movie, our window into its world, is this character Mitch, played by Freaks and Geeks‘ John Francis Daley, who’s being trained as a new server at the delightful family restaurant Shenaniganz. He’s surrounded by colorful people played by Ryan Reynolds, Justin Long, Anna Faris, David Koechner, and Dane Cook, among others. The environment is well established before he gets there, so it’s as new and unusual to him as it is to us. We identify with him.
One of the running gags throughout the film is that every time Mitch opens his mouth to say something he is interrupted. It is indeed very funny. Please don’t let the complete lack of humor in its textual description convince you otherwise. So while it’s likely that he’s not a particularly quiet character, and is instead just constantly being drowned out by the louder, more brash members of the restaurant staff, who also have an impeccable sense of timing, this isn’t exactly alien to a person who only feels like they can’t get a word in edgewise. Regardless, the result is that we get detailed glimpses into the Ryan Reynolds character, Monty, because he finds Mitch so “easy to talk to.” This narrative trick, though, is kind of what brings the movie together, at least so far as one is able to think of a silly comedy about people putting pubic hairs in customers’ salads as cohesive. That’s kind of the point though; we’re brought backstage, behind the curtain or the door with the sign reading “Employees Only,” through the device of the Mitch character. It’s similar to young William Miller in Almost Famous getting to see the world of rock ‘n’ roll firsthand, except Mitch isn’t much of a character, and he is literally “waiting to talk,” unlike William. He’s more of a mirror, reflecting the other characters’ traits, or maybe a window through which we’re able to experience this underworld usually kept from our view in everyday life. Once we’re there, we see how the sausage is made, and that it’s rubbed on the cook’s nutsack before being brought out to the table.
The movie concludes with Mitch finally getting a big speech where he basically tells everyone that they’re bastard people and he hates them, which unsurprisingly earns their respect. This ends up working in a couple of ways, first as a kind of comedic catharsis for those of us passively watching this group of misfits do hilarious but horrible things to each other and to restaurant patrons, and second, through Mitch’s choice of words, which demonstrate he’s in no position to judge them but does it anyway. The fact that this comes at the end of the movie implies that just like Mitch has continued on working with these people despite how disgusted by them he is, we’ve watched the movie up to this point. I mean, if we’re going to comment on how deplorable they all are, we’ve been complicit in a way, getting our jollies off of seeing customers unknowingly ingest their various bodily fluids, so we don’t have much of a high ground from which to judge the characters featured in Waiting. We’re all sick bastard people.
We’ll deny this truth to ourselves, though, by watching and discussing a thoroughly intellectual movie like Richard Linklater’s 2001 gem Waking Life. In 1995’s Before Sunrise, Linklater made a movie out of what amounted to a long conversation between two strangers. Waking Life operates in a similar vein, but instead of a back and forth between two strangers, it’s one protagonist listening to a number of different strangers speak at length about philosophical topics. This protagonist, who is without a name and played by Wiley Wiggins, is also most likely dreaming, but of course the movie complicates this to the extreme.
The Wiggins character says very little, wandering around the dream landscape, drifting from place to place, taking in the theories and images before him, as are we. There’s something to be said here about the nature of movies as a kind of waking dream state, but I’ll leave that for another discussion to do with Christopher Nolan and James Cameron at another time. This movie works as part dream, part wish fulfillment fantasy, part intellectual travelogue.
In university I remember learning about the concept of the flaneur, and still am not entirely sure I understand it, but it seems applicable to Waking Life and the idea of the passive observer character. The idea of the term is that it describes a literary and cinematic trope consisting of a character, usually an affluent male, wandering the streets of the city making detached, cynical observations about his urban environment. This movie takes the concept of the wandering soul and applies it to dreams and ideas. The Wiggins character takes a tour of an infinite maze of explanations and theories and worldviews that may or may not exist entirely within his own mind. Either way, he’s working his way through them introspectively.
This presents a really cool angle on the nature of cinema and its propensity for voyeuristic fantasy fulfillment. There’s the fetishistic possibility presented by a movie like Rear Window, where a character bound to one location creeps on the private lives of everyone within the viewing range of his zoom lens and binoculars. But there’s also what’s presented in Waking Life, the fantasy of a person who can literally transport from location to location, soaking up experiences and information with minimal effort and participation required. It’s the introvert’s dream.
Much has been made of the so-called “Spielberg look,” a character’s expression in a Spielberg or Spielbergesque movie that usually features mouth agape and eyes wide open, taking in an image that is, to them, unbelievable, and by extension, anticipating and perhaps dictating the audience’s reaction to the screen image that follows in the next shot. If there’s a “Linklater look,” it might simply be one person listening to someone. This seems terribly simple, but it’s actually pretty powerful I think. If our deep contemplation of ideas discussed in a movie is to be reflected on screen, it would have to be through an introspective character deeply considering the information being presented to him. This is indeed an image that exists throughout mystery movies and television shows, but in the case of Waking Life it doesn’t lead to action or the next plot point, but is instead purely food for thought, to chew over as we are passively transported to the next scene and location.
Movies inherently exist in this state of duality between immersion and observation. Having a quiet, passive or particularly receptive character at the center helps facilitate both of these things. It can provide justification for our own immersion into an environment that’s entirely unfamiliar and put us more at ease on the bizarre nature of the new surroundings, and it can encourage us to take in these surroundings in an introspective way. It can grant us private moments with characters that otherwise may be elusive or mysterious, and it can allow us to passively observe others who don’t realize they’re being watched. It lets us exist in this realm where we are both there and not there. We like to watch, but we don’t like to be seen. And we want to see and hear everything. Movies are as close as we can come to realizing this distant dream.
– Darren Ruecker