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Through the lens.
A digression on the "unreliable narrator" in film and video in the middle of writing Primeval meta.

This sprang from some really interesting comments by louisedennis on this thread

but this post isn't going to be about that thread or even about Primeval (I have a whole lot of meta to come springing from this, but that will be flagged as being about Primeval so those who aren't interested need not read it.)

What she said was:

Well both situations (leaving Stephen and declaring a lack of interest in the human race) are subject to the unreliable narrator get out. IIRC the Stephen one was, in particular, shot very much from Stephen's point-of-view - so we only know what he perceived from his poisoned state. Which is that he grasped the import of the message but was, maybe, oblivious to anything Helen tried to do to help. You could write reams of fanfic explaining why Helen couldn't get to the surface for help.

My first thought was to reject the unreliable narrators. However, when I started thinking about it I realised that my quarrel was not as much with the sentiments as it was with the idea of who the narrator was in film and TV, how "unreliable narration" could be used, and how it equated to tenses and points of view. Now, in all probability, this is taught in the first few lessons on any media studies course, but I haven't been on one, and, so my thoughts on the subject follow.

Though I know what louisedennis means, I think that "unreliable narrator" is the wrong term. (Unreliable witness might have been better.) What's more, I don't think that, on the whole, you can apply it to TV drama or film except in very specific circumstances.

In film and TV, the camera is the narrator (i.e. it is telling the story), and it also dictates first and third person points of view.

It is conventional that when in third person present mode (the absolute standard) the camera is a completely reliable narrator. There are experimental pieces, I am sure, that use the camera as an unreliable present tense third person narrator, but I can't think of any at the moment. This is for several reasons, but the main one is that in TV and film the camera's point of view is the viewer's point of view. Identification is complete, and therefore, because none of us think of what we see through our eyes and hear through our ears as unreliable narration (though in many respects it is) we accept what the camera sees in the same manner. It is what we are seeing and hearing, and therefore it is reliable. (Not that eyes and ears can't be fooled, but that isn't the point here – the camera is the narrator, we share the camera viewpoint, therefore it is reliable. This is why people can perform stage magic in front of cameras and we will still watch – we are trusting the camera to be our eyes.) In a book, we are being told a story in words – that is, another person is telling us what is happening. Other people are unreliable. They lie. Therefore unreliable narration is almost expected.

Also, if a third person present camera narration is unreliable, dramatic tension and personal involvement vanish. If there is one place the camera does not lie it is in present tense third person narrator mode, because if the viewer doubted that mode then everything on screen would be in doubt, and you lose your viewer's attention. No story, no drama.

The best example is Life on Mars because Sam is hallucinating the lot, but it is filmed with the camera as third person present narrator – and we accept it as reliable. Where there are reality glitches, it is not because the narrator – the camera – is lying or unreliable, but because this is what Sam is seeing and hearing, and its the reality glitches that are the really interesting part of the series. If the narrator was totally unreliable, then we wouldn't know if that was what Sam was actually seeing and hearing or not, making the whole premise untenable.

Even when the camera moves to first person narration mode (when we see through a character's eyes) it can only become unreliable in past tense, that is, when one of the characters is telling the others what happened, or when someone else is speculating about what might have happened. (This is used a lot in all the CSIs - Criminal Minds uses a different technique of having the profiler walk through a green-screened setting as if he/she was either the unsub or the victim.) In that case the narrator may well be lying or the speculation may be wrong, and so the pov camera is, indeed, unreliable. First person narration in the present is different, because the identification with the camera point of view remains intact. The identification remains with the camera, but adds the character as an extra dimension. We are seeing what the character is seeing right now, and that forces us to identify with and trust the character. What the character is seeing may not be there but we are forced to believe, because of our identification with the present tense camera narration, that he is seeing it.

(Of course, if there is a voice-over narrator, either one of the characters or a omniscient voice, then there remains the possibility of unreliable narration even though the camera is in third person pov, present tense, but, again this is extremely rare because an audience lied to in these circumstances may well feel cheated.)

So, using the cited Primeval examples, Stephen in 1.2 is not an unreliable (first person present) narrator. We saw Helen through his eyes and therefore he certainly saw her, whether she was real or hallucination. That is not unreliable narration. (He might be unreliable in what he told Nick she said to him, because we do not hear it, and so there is leave to doubt – though he does not seem to have reason to lie.) In 1.3 neither Nick nor Helen is the narrator – the camera is. Within the series context, what is shown on screen happened, not filtered through either character's viewpoint.

As a corollary, what is not shown on screen or mentioned in dialogue does not exist. The Shakespearian critic, John Dover Wilson, was making this point in the 1930s (I think in What Happens in Hamlet, though I haven't looked it up) about other Shakespearian critics' speculation on what is going on in the gaps in the narrative for which they have no evidence at all.

You can write fanfic, or speculate on what happens off screen (indeed, that's fandom's job, if it has one) but when it comes to critical analysis, then there is nothing outside what happens on screen and what the characters say and do on screen. Like the text of a play, the camera, in film or TV drama cannot, in third person present, be lying to you. (The characters, on the other hand, or even the scriptwriter or director, may be.)

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I have a number of thoughts about this which I'm probably not going to put in a particularly sensible order.

Yes, unreliable narrator, is probably a bad term. However the use of the word "unreliable" does not necessarily mean "mendacious" - its not clear that the narrator in The Remains of the Day for instance is deliberately lying (very often, anyway) but he is clearly unreliable: he gets details wrong; interprets people incorrectly; and attaches import to the wrong parts of an event. I think this sort of unreliability is much more amenable (though not very common) to visual media.

I agree that since we accept that a lot of illusion is involved with TV it is dangerous to then suggest that the viewpoint is deliberately deceitful within the fiction. However, I think it is possible to do precisely this: wrong emphasis/misinterpretation type unreliability - especially, as you point out, in anything presented as a flashback.

However, in the example chosen, clearly Stephen's viewpoint; clearly drugged viewpoint, I think (if the director had so chosen) it would be perfectly possible to play this missing details/incorrect interpretation game so that, at a later point, it could be revealed that Stephen's perception of the event (Helen gave him a message but left him to die) was wrong. Sure, as the canon stands at present, we have no idea what else Helen was doing but we get so little, in that scene, and it is so clearly viewpointed that it is just as hard to assert she did nothing, as it is to assert she did something.

I think your Life on Mars example clearly illustrates that the camera can "lie". Since part of the ambiguity in those scenes is that Sam might actually be in the 1970s and might be seeing things which aren't there. If its not a possibility that the camera is reflecting only Sam's viewpoint but that he is within a "real" world then part of the point of the scene is lost. Brazil does something similar at the end when its suddenly revealed that we're inside Sam's head. I'm fairly sure I seen examples of the more moderate, mis-emphasis/misinterpretation style especially in things with narratorial voiceovers (establishing a viewpoint) or sometimes where the same scene is played from several points-of-view and appears radically different in each one - but though I'm sure I've seen this I can't recall where.

Even without those sorts of tricks, in Primeval season 1 at least, we only encountered Helen when she was interacting with the core team, often with those members who had issues with her. So its not unreasonable to assume that she might appear in a bad light in those situations when she might appear better under other circumstances. I'm not sure that is making up stuff that isn't there as opposed to acknowledging our depth of ignorance of Helen's character, since we only see her in a very narrow range of circumstances. But, you know, one clearly supposes, this being the sort of telly it is, that we are intended to deduce that what we do see is representative. I realise I'm on extremely thin ground if I posit Primeval is attempting any clever viewpoint stuff, but I did say I was playing Devil's advocate.

Of course, I post this and only then do I google "unreliable narrator" - apparently Lost is full of them, but I've only seen one episode of Lost so I can't really comment. Apparently also I should be drawing a distinction between unreliable narrators (who deliberately lie) and biased narrators (I'm very much thinking of biased ones).

There was a Moonlighting episode filmed in black-and-white in which Bruce Willis's character and Cybil Sheppard's each presented an account of a murder (attributed to a man and woman) Willis from the man's POV and Shepperd from the woman's. I remember when I first saw this that I initially assumed it was the same events from different POVs though it is eventually made clear that Willis and Shepperd are, in fact, making up entirely different stories. Wikipedia lists a few examples, of which the He said, she said song from Grease is the most obvious example of the same events filtered through different viewpoints (though it is also explicitly narrated). But it actually does appear to be surprisingly rare in visual media (since it seems such an obvious game to play) which, you know, strongly supports the hypothesis that Primeval isn't doing this (I'm beginning to wish it was though, 'cos it would be dead clever - probably too clever given the lack of signposting though - a guaranteed way to lose 90% of your audience in one big "huh?" moment).

Edited at 2008-02-05 07:59 pm (UTC)

Lost is, indeed, full of unreliable narrators, but all done in flashback - which is where it is, as I said, normal practice. The third person present is not, in those I episodes I have seen - first season - unreliable.

At the moment I'm collecting every thing that has been said or done for and about Helen in series, in order, to make it a bit clearer about how they have - or have not - developed her character, and that is the place for that discussion.

However, I have to say that, before that moment in the tunnel, there is no evidence of any bias against Helen from either Nick or Stephen in anything they say or do. Au contraire: "My wife was a serious scientist," "She was right," "I have to find what happened to my wife," "She would have told you [about the anomalies.]"

At which point, of course, it becomes painfully obvious that I've viewed every episode of season 1 precisely once and am, as a friend of mine once put it, talking out of my bottom.

Well, so was I! (Though I had seen the episodes about three times, it was last year.) However, there comes a point when you think to yourself, "What is in the original text?" If you are as anal as me, you start crawling over it.

Usually, you find that you have been mistaken about something. inamac and I have already got into trouble in various fandoms by crawling over TV series and producing careful evidence that what was once thought canon is actually wishful thinking.

It would appear to me that the camera is often an unreliable narrator in film and television. Any episode of Scooby Doo will illustrate the point. Scenes are often shot to lead you to one conclusion which leads you to believe something which did not happen.

From Hustle to Holby City via Eastenders the camera deliberately misleads. I think I have a Hitchcock film or two where Malkin explains how Hitchcock does it and why.

So the camera deliberately misleads all the time. This does not mean that what you see is not what happens, the lies are by omission. The shot that doesn't come from the gun you see and so on.

Perhaps the truth is that the eye is an unreliable narrator and film makers use it to their advantage. After all, we all know how unreliable eye witness accounts are in real life.

Misleading by omission is not unreliable narration. Unreliable narration occurs when the storyteller - in this case, the camera - shows something that did not happen as if it were fact - see louisedennisabove.

I do love it when someone else does the research and it turns out to pretty much support my contention.

The metaphor that links audio/visual communication to the written word is quite weak in some areas. My contention was that if written down as filmed, the narration in a book would be described as unreliable narration.

The observer of a film/television program becomes the narrator, influenced by the cleverness and sometimes planned deceit of the camerman. One film trick I find very annoying is to only present a narrow window into the world and then to widen it out when the solution is shown. Very few humans have tunnel vision and even then they can and would move their head.

Naturally this is all a matter of definition,

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