Cinemanarrative Dissonance: The Ludonarrative of Video Games and How We Can Apply That To Talking About Movies.

SPOILER WARNING FOR; I, DANIEL BLAKE AND GREEN ROOM, MILD SPOILERS FOR BLADE RUNNER.

There’s a video by a YouTube channel Video Game Critic called Errant Signal, normally a channel which highlights individual games and does a more in-depth than most analysis of the said video game. The video is called Errant Signal – The Debate That Never Took Place, and it’s about how stupid the ludology/narratology debate as a thing is and how stupid it is that as a result, we need to use the term ‘ludo-narrative dissonance’.

Now, this isn’t an essay on video games but I still feel the need to quickly explain what ludo-narrative dissonance is. It’s very simple. Ludo is the latin for game, and narrative means story, so moving on logically from that, ludo-narrative dissonance is when the story of a game is not reflected by the gameplay. The example that coined this term is the 2007 video game BioShock. On its face, the narrative is a dystopian takedown of Ayn Rand’s objectivism as laid down in Atlas Shrugged. The tenants of this criticised ideology is basically to work only in your own self-interest however the gameplay itself is all about working for your own self-interest without the option to do otherwise, really.

At this point, I wish to point out that I can’t attest to the validity of this criticism. I have played maybe 15 minutes of BioShock and far more BioShock Infinite which y’know, has problems of its own but this is so not the place to get into that. But all the same, the originator of the term ludo-narrative dissonance used it to apply to a game which he perceived to have a message expressed by the mechanics of gameplay that was at odds with the message of the story.

Now you may be asking ‘James what the flying fuck does all this have to do with movies?’, and that’s a fair question. In order to highlight the ridiculousness of the state of affairs, Errant Signal talks about how no one talks about a movie as a demonstration of filmmaking skill and as a strong narrative but never at the same time and never in a way that would posit it ‘Cinemanarratively dissonant’.

Enter media and communication analytics channel Folding Ideas, of whom I am a fan.

In his video Ludonarrative Dissonance, he picks up on this somewhat throwaway comment about cinema narrative dissonance and suggests that it actually has some potential value as a critical tool and I’m inclined to agree. So what I intend to do in this essay is somewhat refine the term. Try to apply it to a few films and see what comes out of it. Most likely this essay will be ignored and the term written off as some obscure footnote, but hopefully not.

Cinemanarrative dissonance can now for the purposes of this essay be defined as when the use of cinematic language as a story telling tool is in conflict with the story it is being employed to bring to life. A misuse of otherwise sound cinematic tools.

Example One: Transformers.

I’m going to start off with the example bought up by Folding Ideas and see if I can add some to it. He talks about how in the 2007 movie Transformers the character Mikaela Banes played by Megan Fox is written in the script to be smart and capable but is treated by the camera as a “piece of meat”.

So I watched Transformers specifically to verify this and oh my god is Folding Ideas right, epitomised in this clip here.

This is clip epitomises what he means by cinema-narrative dissonance; whilst all the elements in the, albeit terrible script, suggest that Michaela is strong and competent and clearly knows about engines as demonstrated in this scene, both Witwiki and Micheal Bay himself are only interested in objectifying Michaela. This might just be why Megan Fox called Bay Hitler. Maybe.

The other example I want to bring up is bought up by Lindsay Ellis in this video here.

In the video essay entitled, Why is it So Hard to Remember What Happens in Transformers? | The Whole Plate: Episode 3, Ellis posits that the reason she and others find it hard to remember all the fucking weirdness and dumbness in its specificity is that Bay gives every action equal weight no matter whether they are of unignorable importance to the story or not. She cites a brilliant Every Frame A Painting video I suggest everyone watches, (Michael Bay – What is Bayhem?)

Now whilst I agree that Bay does this, does it count as cinema narrative dissonance? The argument for this being that the camera is deeming specific elements with an importance that they just don’t have in the story.

Now, there is an old adage in screenwriting that everything needs to be vital. If a scene or item isn’t needed it shouldn’t be there. This comes from the idea of Chekov’s Gun. Chekov being a playwright who believed fervently in narrative efficiency and whose ideas can be summed up in the example that if there is a loaded gun on stage then it must go off at some point in the drama.

The problem with Bay’s interpretation is that the scripts he uses have, frankly, lots of extraneous shit. If we were going to look at, for example, Mad Max: Fury Road. That story is incredibly simple, it’s an a to b and back again chase movie that just has a lot of moving parts. What that film does that is different is that using simple framing and a consistent centring of key elements through quick cutting, it holds your focus on all the important players in the game with inserts to set up all the things that become relevant later. This for me is epitomised in the scene where Max and Furiosa fight using Max’s chain when they first meet up with each other.

The gun and the car door and everything are set up well in advance of them being needed. Whilst things are not being set up the camera stays rock solid on the mechanics of the fight occasionally cutting to Nux or the wives. This is all kept track of by everything staying in the centre of the frame so your eyes never have to adjust. This is how to laser focus on a story with great set up and pay off where everything that’s bought up is important to the story. This is opposed to Bay who could never cut anything if he tried.

However, I don’t think this is necessarily cinema-narrative dissonance more than Bay just not being able to discern what’s important because all he’s interested in is holding the camera on his dick and pushing it right in your face. You may disagree, and that is entirely fine.

Example 2: Blade Runner

I just wanna get this out the way right up front. I love Blade Runner, and if it weren’t for the scene that we’re about to talk about it would be, in my opinion, a perfect movie. However, it isn’t, it’s far from perfect.

We will be referring unless explicitly stated otherwise to the final cut of Blade Runner.

For his second and third movies British director and producer Ridley Scott moved from the historic medieval fields of The Duellists to much more speculative fiction and in so doing crafted to towering behemoths of science fiction that sculpted both space fiction and dystopian fiction for the rest of time. Alien of 1979, and Blade Runner of 1982, they both approached the subject of sexual assault and rape in very different ways.

Alien, famously being about a parasitic invader that invades your body and gestates before bursting out of your chest. The writer spoke of wanting all the men in the audience to cross their legs, to really understand what rape is like. This was then beautifully captured in Geiger’s production design in a way that makes for one of the scariest movies ever. That being said, Scott’s approach to this seems more to be, ‘that’s a really neat idea that I can make look really cool’ than the morals of it. This suggestion of mine is only reinforced by the way he approaches one particular scene in Blade Runner.

The music is lilting, the cinematography, very noirish and chilly but also filled with toned back warm hues. Their faces singled out from the blackness by warm light highlighting the red of lipstick, the emotions of eyes, white reflecting off the shape of curls of black hair. It’s shot like a love scene, and if you try to find it on YouTube that’s what most of the videos will be titled. However, the actual text of the scene is one of deep emotional darkness. Rick Deckard, played by Harrison Ford, bullying, breaking, emotionally manipulating Sean Young’s Racheal Tyrel. Taking advantage of her desperate emotional state, physically manipulating her and preventing her from leaving and forcing her to give some warped idea of consent whilst she’s crying and he’s looking furious. You could frame this as a noir homage but that would really be making excuses, and for a film with such emotionally resonant scenes as the ‘I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe’ monologue, that kind of post-modern detachment seems, perverse at best. No, this is a rape scene framed as a love scene. It is a particularly egregious example of cinema-narrative dissonance because of how disturbing the disparity is. This is in a way what I mean when I say cinema-narrative dissonance, it is a duplicity, a hypocrisy of intended message and presented text. This is a particularly shitty breed.

Maybe Scott matured as time went on, after all the man made Thelma & Louise, I don’t know, maybe not.

Example 3: I, Daniel Blake

A hypocrisy of intended message and presented text. Does this apply to my issues with I, Daniel Blake because I’m really not sure it does? Let’s dig in.

So the plot of I, Daniel Blake is that a carpenter suffers a heart condition so can’t work but yet his benefits officers tell him he must. It then descends into this darkly comic Kafkaesque nightmare, a loose retelling of The Trial.  That’s all great and I was with the movie until right near the end, because its message, that the benefits system here in the UK is completely fucked and designed to stop you trying to get benefits, I fundamentally agree with, but then at the end they’re about to go to court and fight for their rights, when Daniel dies. Then his friend blames the government at his funeral for him dying of a pre-existing heart condition, and it makes no sense. Or rather it could have made sense if it had been put together a bit better, as it is it just feels rushed. 

Honestly, you almost expect her to say ‘like a dog’, (Kafta references ftw).

More than it being rushed it feels like Loach is trying to push a moral onto an event that doesn’t inherently have that moral. There is ‘a hypocrisy of intended message and presented text’. However, I don’t think that it’s cinema-narrative dissonance. It is a dissonance of the message conveyed through dialogue against the story, instead of a dissonance with the message conveyed through the camera and cinematic language against the story. So no, I, Daniel Blake‘s dissonance is not of the type we are examining the possibilities of usage of here.

Fourth and Final Example: American History X

In her video essay, Mel Brooks, The Producers and the Ethics of Satire about N@zis Ellis refers to how in American History X, the text is explicitly anti-nazi but Nazis love the imagery that it presents of them. I think Ellis hits it on the head here when she says, “the text shows neo-nazism and white supremacy as bad, but isn’t it also kind of bad… ass..? Isn’t it kind of cool the way he’s framed?” Yeah, it is pretty cool the way he’s framed; if you’re a Nazi. The text shows Nazis as explicitly bad, however the framing of Edward Norton’s Derek Vinyard, especially in this shot; 

thumb-1920-355412.png

isn’t as broad as just bad. It’s more threatening, imposing, dangerous, which, if you’re a neo-nazi is exactly how you want to come across. The culture surrounding neo-nazism is really incisively captured by Ellis when she called Vinyard, (in an ironic sense), “an uncucked, neo-nazi, alpha”. Ugh, I feel like I need to bleach my fingers after typing the words ‘uncucked’. The point is the community is all about posturing without any real change, and yes I know the same criticism could be levelled at the left, I’ve made it, shush. Terms like ‘uncucked’ and ‘alpha’ are generally used by people, when used seriously, who are neither of those things, or people who aspire to those things without any regard for any other positive attributes, or both. In the same video, Ellis talks about the fragile nature of Nazi theatrical posturing, terms like uncucked and alpha to me are the modern equivalent to forming a swastika out of marching stormtroopers. Inherently likely to break down when criticised. The point is that if you’re a Nazi you want to be considered dangerous without being considered inherently bad. In that respect, the framing of Norton in American History X is perfect for them, and it’s because of a cinema-narrative dissonance between the intended framing of Nazis to be pathetic, inherently bad, and ineffectual against the actual framing using cinematic language, which paints the Nazis to be threatening and dangerous. Director Tony Kaye famously denounced this film, and maybe this was why.

Maybe the better example of how to do this would be Green Room. In this story both the narrative of the script and of the camera goes from showing the neo-Nazis in that film as threatening and taking all hope from its characters to pathetic in their own right, which is maybe a journey that in our modern times, with the Alt-right descending, and with a back-catalogue of media showing Nazis as terrifying, that the audience needs to go on. We need to go from seeing the Nazis through the lens that shoots Edward Norton in American History X to the lens that frames the Nazi played by Patrick Steward running away at the end of Green Room and getting shot in the head.

That’s the end of the article. I hope that you enjoyed it and that together we might have helped give the world a new and helpful critical tool, and refined it’s usage to a point where we really know what it is and how to use it. 

J x

References

Alien. (1979). [film] Directed by R. Scott. UK, USA: Brandywine Productions, Twentieth Century-Fox Productions.

American History X. (1999). [film] Directed by T. Kaye. USA: New Line Cinema, Savoy Pictures, The Turman-Morrissey Company.

Blade Runner. (1982). [film] Directed by R. Scott. USA, Hong Kong, UK: The Ladd Company,  Shaw Brothers, Warner Bros.

Ellis, L. (2017). Mel Brooks, The Producers and the Ethics of Satire about N@zis. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=62cPPSyoQkE [Accessed 1 Aug. 2017].

Ellis, L. (2017). Why is it So Hard to Remember What Happens in Transformers? | The Whole Plate: Episode 3. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aE-6M7IbNSI [Accessed 1 Aug. 2017].

Errant Signal (2015). Errant Signal – The Debate That Never Took Place. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xBN3R0m31bA [Accessed 1 Aug. 2017].

Every Frame A Painting (2014). Michael Bay – What is Bayhem?. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2THVvshvq0Q [Accessed 1 Aug. 2017].

Folding Ideas (2017). Ludonarrative Dissonance. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=04zaTjuV60A [Accessed 1 Aug. 2017].

Green Room. (2016). [film] Directed by J. Saulnier. USA: Broad Green Pictures, Film Science.

Hellquist, P. (2007), BioShock, Video Game, 2K Games, Irrational Games, Australia, USA

I, Daniel Blake. (2016). [film] Directed by K. Loach. UK, France, Belgium: Sixteen Films, Why Not Productions, Wild Bunch, BFI, Les Films du Fleuve, Canal+, Ciné+.

Kafka, F. (1925). The Trial. Berlin: Verlag Die Schmiede.

Levine, K. (2013), BioShock Infinite, Video Game, Irrational Games, USA

Mad Max: Fury Road. (2015). [film] Directed by G. Millar. Australia, USA: Warner Bros. Pictures, Village Roadshow Pictures, Kennedy Miller Productions, RatPac-Dune Entertainment.

Rand, A. (1957). Atlas Shrugged. New York City: Random House.

The Duellists. (1977). [film] Directed by R. Scott. UK: Paramount Pictures, Enigma Productions.

Thelma & Louise. (1991). [film] Directed by R. Scott. USA, France: Pathé Entertainment, MGM, Percy Main, Star Partners III Ltd.

Transformers. (2007). [film] Directed by M. Bay. USA: DreamWorks, Paramount Pictures, Hasbro, Di Bonaventura Pictures, SprocketHeads.

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