Monday, June 18, 2007

Desiring Closure

Jim Emerson has written a few posts about the controversy surrounding The Sopranos finale. (For details about the ending or the show itself, he is a much better resource than me). His response to the naysayers that have come down on the show's supposedly ambiguous ending ("What, that's it?") is perfect. Rather than providing a rationale or structured argument for why people should like it, he simply asks: whaddaya want? Those two words just about sum it up.

Many viewers invest in a show/movie to the extent that they willingly participate in the manipulation of the narrative: its plot details, character arcs, etc. This is especially true of television since an individual must invest a lot of time, on multiple occasions over an extended duration. Though a great majority of commercial media and visual narratives are built around the principles of plot and structural familiarity, many viewers don't seem to notice their manipulation until the end. An ending cannot simply be an ending. It must mean something. The elements of a narrative need to come together, and if they don't, that too is often treated with some kind of thematic unity and is subject to convention. If an ending "leaves you hanging," most viewer react negatively and feel abused and manipulated, as if the whole experience was worth nothing simply due to the absence of a satisfactory ending. But what makes an ending satisfying? Moreoever, what is it about endings that attracts/repels most viewers?

The very idea of closure is synomonous with narrative, folklore, and mythological tales. Perhaps our fascination with happy endings is partly due to our sequential understanding of time and our own lives in which we constantly move along some straight line, with death marking the end of that line. Many have argued that narrative, language, and communication -- in its principles of organization and providing structure to perceived stimuli -- are mechanisms which assist socialized members of a culture to process the finitude of death. Happy endings would then represent the repressed fear of death that is somehow intrinsic to human lived experience, physically and socially. One could take that argument further and attribute the cultural creation of religion, spirituality, and the idea of an afterlife to the fundamental logic of our understanding of and participation in language and narrative; specifically, one's conscious or unconscious acknowledgement that narrative essentially constitutes any sense of memory, self, and purpose, which is why no culture or individual can divorce it/him/herself from narrative.

These issues undoubtedly play a great role in understanding narrative as a uniquely human invention, an idea I could not even begin to claim to understand but am at the very least provoked by. But I get the feeling that there's something more with regards to the nature of the public response to finale of The Sopranos. I should note that have not seen a full episode of The Sopranos in its eight-year run. Over the years, I've caught bits and pieces of the show and was consistently impressed with its focus on character, and its prizing subtlty and ambiguity over plot. In the world of television, such qualities are typically nowhere to be found. That is why I think there is more going on with the conjecture of the show's finale and the public response to it. In wake of the show's apparently controversial final episode, I have been thinking about issues of spectatorship, specifically concerning the viewer's relationship with the content of a given medium such as television or cinema.

I use the term spectator here as both a greater idea of "cultural audience" and in a basic individual sense. That relationship continually drives me to question my own motivations as a spectator of an image and a witness to a narrative. With cinema, television and other visual arts, one must account for both spectatorship and the "narrative experience." While visual media often converge these roles, we must be careful not to lump them together. This idea is crucial to understanding visual narratives, but for many reasons -- such as the absence of a formal manner of appreciating the moving image in education systems and a general negative attitude toward electronic media as artistic -- audiences/spectators tend to think they watch something on television or a movie in the same way they might read something on a page, which is why audiences by an large claim to favor thickly plotted stories that follow familiar paths so as to allow for easy interpretation and entertainment.

I realize that the last couple of sentences may be construed as something of an attack on the literary-minded, but that is not my aim. The point I wish to articulate is that the socialization process of education and beyond tend to condition individuals to appreciate the written form of narrative, and due to the rising visual nature of most narrative media and the continued absence of a real understanding of their components, a great amount of people interpret narrative media as if they were of the literary variety. While I would argue that there are many similarities and that visual narrative media by and large emerged from the literary (though I don't think this is entirely true), it is an act or pure laziness to lump visual media in with everything else. The written form -- be it the novel or analytic essay -- is not any less important or more simplistic, but should instead be understood as different. While all forms of media and technology extend from the relationships among various other media forms collide, part of the reason for this is that we construct and interpret new media based on our understandings of previous media. Therefore, any new elements introduced to a given system must be assessed based on how they contribute to that already existing system. Does this mean that "everything is the same" and that narrative is narrative no matter what form it is manifested in? Not at all.

In fact, the best way to understand new forms of media and narrative is to explicitly focus on their elements and seek to understand how they function by serving to sustain familiar frameworks of narrative idenfitication yet also create new relationships. I understand that television and cinema are vastly different (as I will explore in more detail in a forthcoming post), but the example of The Sopranos finale exemplifies a great struggle in visual narrative, and that is the overemphasis on plot and familiar narrative frameworks over the viewer's saturation of living, breathing images that transcend the simple boundaries of plot structure. I am not claiming that the fundamental process of experiencing a narrative is simple -- I would argue the reverse -- but that we are in a sense trained to discard narratives that take full advantage of the intricate nature of images and present abstractions and ambiguities. For sure, some narratives make anti-convention an exercise in pure convention (e.g. Paul Haggis's Crash), but these types of narratives are usually at the mercy of the same perspective that breeds the mentality faovring plot and narrative structure over ambiguity. In these cases, the filmmaker/storyteller, while trying to be different, usually goes about doing so with an approach firmly embedded in the very conventions they claim to fight. A work of true abstraction is one in which the image lives, and compositional details serve to either uphold or question those frameworks that form the basis of our understanding. In doing so, that very mode of understanding may be expanded, stretched, and confounded.

The debate will surely continue over The Sopranos and other movies/shows with controversial or surprising endings. But so long that we are arguing about them, we only assert our total surrender to them. While we continue discussing the relevance of endings -- our frustrations and surprises with them -- we affirm the the real mystery of narratives by consciously diverting ourselves away from the unconscious pleasures of their details. The ending may be what's discussed and debated, but whether one consciously likes or dislikes it was never the point. Whadda we want, then? Now that's a question I can't begin to understand the answer to. But rather than thinking about the possibilities, perhaps the expectation of an answer to that (or any) question is what we really ought to be thinking about.

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