The narrative significance of ‘unreadability’

I’m increasingly interested in how interiority is represented in culture. I mean this as a general term for depicting inward experience of whatever sort. I’ve been primarily thinking about this in terms of film and tv so far. Partly because I happen to be someone who watches a lot of films. But there’s something interesting about manner in which this medium so often depends upon inevitably visual techniques to depict inner life. However not all such representations take this form. In fact some are a matter of the deportment of the actor, how they depict the orientation of their character towards others in a film (and often implicitly towards the audience). There was a Vanity Fair article I came across a while ago which captured something of this

How does Pitt embody cool? As the director Andrew Dominik noted in a DVD extra for the 2012 film Killing Them Softly, “When you watch Brad, you always feel like something’s going on under there, but you’re not quite sure what it is. I think that’s the reason he’s a movie star. He has that quality of mystery. He doesn’t invite you to share his position somehow.”

He doesn’t invite you to share his position. That is as good a definition of movie cool as there is. The cool actor invites admiration, envy, and desire, much more than empathy, because he is unreadable. His characters leave you wondering what it would be like to be them, without ever imagining that you could.

On the other end of the continuum is Tom Hanks, an actor who almost always invites you to share his position. The power of Hanks’s performances lies in their ability to communicate exactly what it would be like to the character he is playing, which is why he has succeeded so much at the Oscars. He has been nominated five times for best actor and won it twice, one of only nine actors to do so.

I would suggest that the argument being made here could be recast in terms of the variable opacity with which an audience experiences the internal life of a given character played by an actor. Not ‘inviting you to share his position’ constitutes a representation of inner life which embraces the elusiveness of that interiority. Some characters draw you in, externalising what is going on internally and inviting others to empathise with it. In contrast, there are those who make no attempt to do this, with their actions being clearly purposive but it being equally clear that those purposes do not include seeking understanding from observers.

I think this is why the final scene of Killing Them Softly is so powerful. Pitt’s character has been elusive throughout. At the end, his frustration leads him to share aspects of his internal life and we gain an insight into the cynicism with which he views the world. But appropriately enough, this heretofore absent externalisation is soon subsumed into a practical attempt to terminate the transaction: “Now FUCKING pay me”.

Pitt plays him in a way that makes no attempt to “communicate exactly what it would be like to be the character he is playing” and the film is so much more powerful for this. In fact I’d argue it’s crucial to the unfolding of the film’s narrative. This raises a question: is the mode of representation applied to the interiority of key characters similarly important to the narrative progression of other films? How does the role played by the representation of inner life (thinking, deliberating, imagining, day dreaming etc) in telling cinematic stories vary? Do the two ends of the continuum invoked by the Vanity Fair article tend to map on to two distinctive kinds of narrative? I suspect it can’t be that simple but there nonetheless seems to be quite a lot in this question that could be usefully explored.

2 responses to “The narrative significance of ‘unreadability’”

  1. “When you watch Brad, you always feel like something’s going on under there, but you’re not quite sure what it is. I think that’s the reason he’s a movie star. He has that quality of mystery.” I’d say it’s the star’s lack of acting skills that’s being mystified here.

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