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“All that was once directly lived has become mere representation.” Theorist Guy Debord, in his collection of theses called The Society of the Spectacle, asserts that we have become a society dominated by images and representations, and all of our social interactions are only perceived through this constructed reality. Debord asserts that “the concrete life of everyone has been degraded into a speculative universe.”

While Debord would press his assertions on to the entirety of our current reality, the premise that life is made from symbols and spectacle is the foundation upon which film art is predicated. Film captures the representation, or the symbol, of contrived or documented narrative. Even a recording of a live performance watched later, is a representation of that performance and not the live performance itself.

Film holds a great value to art by providing a medium for documentation, and by creating a time-based canvas that artists can use to explore new ideas. Just as painters, photographers and other artists create visual representations of perceptions and ideas through their mediums, film artists explore the same perceptions of reality with a seemingly narrower gap between reality and the representation of it. This gap between reality and representation, while actually the same distance as all art, seems narrower due to the way in which film art is experienced. In contrast to painting, for example, a film or a screen can give the illusion of events happening in real time and in real life. While each is manufactured, the narratives continue to change as more relevant aspects are conveyed to the viewer in the time-based form. Narrative stories pull in spectators with characteristics and situations to which the viewer relates.

The scope of my current work has developed from learning and understanding the traditional conventions of narrative structure to the process of breaking those rules. From the beginning of my current work (a process that began over two years ago), I have familiarized myself with the traditional components of film such as: a powerful story, character development, shot lengths, shot structures, use of sound and montage. As I have worked toward understanding these elements of film narrative, I have developed an increasing desire to draw the spectator into the process of a narrative. Through breaking the rules, my work gives agency to the audience, allowing the viewer’s experience and interpretation to inform the narrative on display. In my most recent work, Remember, I involve the audience in the narrative and also the process of creating the narrative.

Remember – The story

Remember tells the story of a man named James who has just lost his wife. James is grieving. He is not answering his phone. The phone messages that are left give clues that James is not talking to anyone, while receiving condolence phone calls and cards. Through the typical and (sometimes) cliché actions and words of others, James continues his grief. James stays in bed for long periods of time and mopes around his house. At one point, a homeless man comes and camps out in James’ front yard. Noticing the homeless man, James goes outside and offers him something to eat. The homeless man never actually speaks to James during the film, but James feeds him, brings him things to keep warm and begins to have coffee with him in the mornings. The homeless man points out children playing, teens going on a date and other situations to James. These circumstances bring to mind James’ memories of his wife and he begins to share them all with the homeless man. Through conversation and silence, James talks about the person his wife was and the person she had helped him to become. After a while, James wakes up to find the homeless man had moved on. James eventually decides to go back to work. His grief is certainly not over, but he has taken a step forward in recovering.

A narrative based on anyone’s truth

Remember is a fictional narrative that is based on real life events of a woman who lost her husband to cancer at a young age. While I interviewed this woman to understand her story, the script of Remember is only a representation of her story, and a partial one at that. The film builds on and adds to her actual experiences to give the narrative more points of relatability, allowing the audience a greater opportunity to sympathize with the experience of grief and loss. In Remember, the homeless man is an addition to the real life story to represent the main character dealing with her own inner dialogue and struggle.

The script and shooting of Remember are intentionally vague with regard to James’ job, house, wife, and even his inner processes. This vagueness allows each viewer to relate to James in ways that are personal to them and that, possibly, only they can understand. This gives an otherwise ambiguous story power as it becomes personally relatable to each viewer’s life in specific ways. My intention is to provide enough information for the viewer to relate the narrative to their own experience and decide for themselves the message and meaning in my work.

Through two focus groups, I was able to gather insight to the interpretations of the film that were created by viewers. Some viewers connected to the story of the main character’s grief and struggle to move forward. Others connected to the homeless man and found meaning in paying attention to how they perceive people. Still others followed the direction and actions of the camera crew and found an appreciation for the process of filmmaking.

Watch the Official Trailer

Providing only building blocks

The idea of rearranging building blocks of film to suit the vision of an individual viewer became central to my current work. However, instead of re-organizing the blocks myself, I wanted to empower the audience to re-organize the blocks to create their own story. To achieve this, Remember uses a 3-channel arrangement, displaying three different films simultaneously side by side. Aspects of montage are built into each screen with sequences that alternate between the screens. Remember’s three screens continually interact with each other through the editing and composition of the shots.

The first film is a traditionally styled narrative of James working through his grief. The second film is the same narrative, but shot from different angles. It breaks the rules of traditional film by giving the viewer access to a slightly different perspective of the same scenes in the first film. This simulates the experience of being in two different places at the same time. In a traditional structure, this second film would serve as cutaways to the first film and could also be used as a part of the montage structure of the overarching story. The third film reveals the making of the first two films in a documentary style. It highlights the director and camera crew as the first two films are captured.

Each of the three films was constructed from the use of five cameras on each shoot. Three cameras faced the actors and made up the shots of the first two films. These cameras utilized traditional shot structures to tell the narrative story. The other two cameras were turned back on the crew. These cameras tried to mimic shot lengths and motions of the “forward facing” cameras. Through this method, five different viewpoints of each scene were created and placed side by side during editing to manufacture each of the three narratives.

Traditional shot structures are used to create the montage, but they are not edited in a single channel. This breaks the rules of traditional editing. Typically, in the editing structure of a cross-shot there is a framed shot of a person speaking (usually close up or medium shot), followed by a framed shot of the other person’s reaction. In Remember, both the shot and cross shot exist, but are (many times) viewed simultaneously in the adjacent channels. The three channel set-up provides differing perspectives on the same scene. Remember allows audiences to create their own montage throughout the entire film by deciding for themselves which screen, which film and which narrative to focus on and for how long before changing that focus. Remember engages the audience to play a critical role in their own experience of the story. By placing the three channels side by side I ask each member of the audience to discover the aspect of the narrative to which they most relate. This is filtered through their own life experiences and interests.

Regardless of the narrative focus, the visual display continually asks the viewer to be present in the moment. It invites the audience to follow the narrative channel that relates closely to them, but they cannot forget that the others are happening. While all the building blocks of the narrative structure are displayed to the viewer through my direction, editing and presentation, it is the audience that gains the final meaning of the film by creating their own personal montage from the details provided.

During the focus groups, people commented about the three screen set-up. Some people paid close attention to a single story line and worked to block out the other stories taking place. In addition, a common thread in the feedback is that it was a sensory overload, and that it was necessary to work hard to stay in the story. However, a lot of people also said that at some point (and they are not sure when) the difficulty fell away and they were engrossed in the story.