Monthly Archives: February 2015

Eliminating the Fourth Wall: Metafiction and Moonlighting

Moonlighting

In my last post, I discussed Twin Peaks and its subversion of the detective genre through the incorporation of supernatural elements. Another series that does something similar is Moonlighting, an American detective series that follows the investigations of Maddy Hayes and David Addison. However, Moonlighting subverts the conventional detective series differently in that it subverts it through the use of metafiction. Metafiction is when a text foregrounds its own artifice and indeed, there are many instances in which Moonlighting ‘breaks the fourth wall’ and makes references to itself as a television program.

For instance, direct reference is made to the structure of the detective series. When investigating a case, Maddy asks David: ‘What do we do now?’ to which he replies ‘Wrap this up in about twelve minutes so another show can come on the air’.

Similarly, in the Christmas special, David asks Maddy ‘Do you think this is the Christmas episode?’ However, this scene takes the idea of breaking the fourth wall a step further in that it is followed by Maddy and David walking off set to find the production crew singing Christmas carols. Such scenes have led critics to describe the series as eliminating the fourth wall completely. Indeed, there are even episodes in the series that include sequences which show the production crew dismantling sets. In the Season Two finale, for example, Maddy and David walk off the set and into the studio parking lot. Similarly, the last episode of the series is interrupted by the news that the series has been cancelled and the set starts being dismantled around them before they have solved the typical ‘case of the week’. Therefore, not only does Moonlighting break the forth wall but the series seems to dismantle it completely.

 

Here is a particularly metafictional scene. In it Maddy and David introduce the episode and discuss how the content of it needs to be stretched out in order to fill the required sixty minutes of airtime:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2ieKjVKtOi4

This article provides a further analysis of metafiction and how it operates in film, television and the novel:

http://www.litkicks.com/FourthWall#.VOoyjFOsXMM

 

Barth, John. Lost in the Funhouse. New York: Doubleday, 1968. Print.

Horowitz, Joy. ‘The Madcap Behind Moonlighting.’ The New York Times, Mar. 1986. Accessed 22 Feb. 2015. Web.

Moonlighting. Glenn Gordon Caron. Picturemaker Productions, 1985-1989. Television.

‘Moonlighting’. tvtropes. Accessed 22 Feb. 2015. Web.

Paskin, Willa. ‘Rewind: Celebrating the brilliance of Moonlighting.’ Salon, 9 Mar. 2013. Accessed 22 Feb. 2015. Web.

Film as Collage

HillCinema and literature often mimic artistic practices. Postmodern literature and metafiction such as John Barth’s ‘Lost in the Funhouse’, for instance, imitates the way in which Abstract Expressionism foregrounds its own artifice. Similarly, nineties cinema often blurs several genres into one narrative to the extent that it can be difficult to describe exactly what type of film or series we are watching and thereby results in a work that resembles a collage, that is, an artwork made from an assemblage of different forms.

This is particularly evident in works such as Twin PeaksEdward Scissorhands and Toy Story.

For instance, while Twin Peaks is officially labeled a detective series, it incorporates supernatural elements. The series follows the investigation of the murder of a high school student. However, it does not offer solutions to the murder based on generic conventions in that the murderer is revealed to be a supernatural character whereas in traditional detective stories ‘all supernatural … agencies are ruled out as a matter of discourse’ (Knox). Furthermore, Twin Peaks seems to incorporate more than the supernatural. It can, for example, be viewed as a soap opera in that it contains romantic subplots and family disputes. Also, the characters in the series appear to be imported from different genres: Laura’s killer is a demon from another dimension called BOB and is based on the villains of horror films, forensic specialist Rosenfield derives from science fiction, (with his black suit and sun glasses, he brings to mind The X Files), Leland with his sudden outbursts of song seems to have come from a musical, comic duo Andy and Lucy are sitcom characters while Sheriff Truman is fundamentally a western character complete with a cowboy hat. In addition, Dale Cooper, the protagonist of the series, appears to stem from the realm of advertising. At random moments in the series, he comments on certain commodities around him. For example, when he drinks a cup of coffee, he dramatizes the event by inhaling it deeply and announcing loudly:

‘You know, this is a damn good cup of coffee. I don’t know how many cups of coffee I’ve had in my life…this is one of the best!’

This collage-like or ‘toy box’ ensemble of characters is similar to that of Toy Story in which characters such as a cowboy (Woody), an astronaut (Buzz), a dinosaur (Rex) and a tour guide (Barbie) join forces and bring together the genres of the Western, science fiction, the natural horror film and advertising.

Moreover, another film that similarly mixes genres is Edward Scissorhands. Like Twin Peaks, the film incorporates elements of advertising. For example, the character Peg Boggs, the local Avon representative, often faces the camera, holds up products and describes them loudly. At the beginning of the film, she is selling cosmetics in her neighbourhood and at one point announces:

‘I’ve come to show you our exquisite new line of soft colours in shadows, blushes and lipstick. Everything you need to accent and highlight your changing looks.’

The setting of this scene, an overly bright suburban street, further likens it to a commercial. However, the exaggerated performances of the residents and the pastel coloured 1950s suburban setting also liken the film to an American daytime soap opera. Furthermore, because Edward Scissorhands is essentially a fairytale about a man with scissors in place of hands, it, like Twin Peaks, fuses together the soap opera with the supernatural, or in this case, the horror, specifically the German silent horror film. For example, at the end of the brightly coloured cul-de-sac is an enormous haphazard-looking mansion where Edward resides, resulting in a bizarre juxtaposition of the suburban and the gothic. Indeed, it is like a strange crossover of Desperate Housewives and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. Moreover. this juxtaposition between the two genres is further pronounced in the film when Edward moves into the suburban estate. Indeed, Edward seems to be in the wrong film. In contrast to the neon dressed, melodramatic suburbanites, he looks and behaves like a character of silent cinema. For instance, he is completely devoid of colour in that he dresses in black, white and grey. Also, Edward barely speaks. He generally relies on facial expressions as a means of communication and his exaggerated physical gestures channel performances such as those of Charlie Chaplin.

Therefore, by blurring several genres into one narrative, these early nineties works appear to be drawing on collage in that they cut and paste a variety of genres into one work and result in something completely new and unrecognisable.

 

An example of a ‘commercial’ in Edward Scissorhands:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=exNuX9vkWtY

And another in Twin Peaks. Note the exaggerated performances and focus on the product in both scenes:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KxwcQ1dapw8

A close analysis of Edward Scissorhands and the various genres it draws upon:

http://www.slideshare.net/robyn_valentine/edward-scissorhands-28703291

For further information on this idea of a ‘toy box’ ensemble of characters, here is an article that discusses how it operates in the video game Disney Infinity, the ultimate toy box experience:

http://marvel.com/news/video_games/22864/understanding_disney_infinity_the_toy_box

 

Edward Scissorhands. Dir. Tim Burton. 20th Century Fox, 1990. Film.

Full of Secrets: Critical Approaches to Twin Peaks. Ed. David Lavery. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1995. Print.

Toy Story. Dir. Dir. John Lasseter. Pixar Animation Studios, 1999. Film.

Twin Peaks. Dir. David Lynch. CBS Television Distribution, 1990-1991. Television.

Twin Peaks: A Trauma Narrative

Twin Peaks 2While David Lynch denies knowledge of trauma theory, Twin Peaks and its prequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me can certainly be read as postmodern trauma narratives of childhood abuse. Twin Peaks is a supernatural crime series centering on the murder of high school student named Laura Palmer by her father Leland and Fire Walk with Me is a prequel to the series that focuses on the days leading up to her death. The film narrates Laura’s struggle with her abusive father and displays many of the experimental techniques employed in trauma narratives. The employment of an experimental form in postmodern trauma literature can be seen as an attempt to more accurately represent the workings of a traumatised mind. For example, the form of trauma narratives are often fragmented and repetitive in order to mimic the way in which a traumatic event is experienced belatedly through nightmares and flashbacks (Caruth). In novels such as Slaughterhouse-Five, for example, the narrative is told out of sequence while Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods takes the traumatic event in the novel and narrates it twice. Similarly, in Twin Peaks, the narrative similarly moves backwards and forwards in time in that events that occurred in the series final are discussed by characters in the prequel. Also, the central traumatic event of the series, that is, the murder of Laura, is literally repeated. When Laura dies, her identical cousin Maddy Ferguson moves into her house and eventually suffers the same fate as her when she is murdered by Leland. When Maddy announces that she must leave the Palmer household and return home, Leland rams her head into a wall and wraps her in plastic just as he did to Laura. Moreover, in Fire Walk with Me, we are told that Leland killed a girl named Teresa Banks. She is also found wrapped in plastic and it is revealed that Leland informed her that she too ‘looked just like my Laura’.

Furthermore, a common reaction to a traumatic episode is the inability to process it and in turn replace it with something more tolerable (Melley). In Slaughterhouse-Five for instance, in order to protect himself from his traumatic memories of the Dresden bombings, Billy Pilgrim imagines he is a time traveller abducted by an alien race known as the Tralfamadorians who inform him to ‘Ignore awful times, and concentrate on the good ones’ (85) while John Wade in In the Lake of the Woods is unable to fully confront his painful memories of Vietnam and similarly replaces them with ‘more pleasant ones’. For instance, his acts of atrocity in the war are made more palatable by envisioning them as magic tricks: ‘He displayed an ordinary military radio and whispered a few words and made their village disappear’.

In Twin Peaks, there is a similar displacement of traumatic events onto the supernatural. For example, whenever Leland enters Laura’s room at night she does not recognize him as her father but as BOB, an aging demon from another dimension, because the idea of her father as her abuser is too horrific to confront directly.

Therefore, while Lynch claims to know nothing of trauma theory then, he appears to have thoroughly researched it.

For more information on the conflicting representations of reality and the supernatural in Twin Peaks, see here:

http://thequietus.com/articles/10431-twin-peaks-fire-walk-with-me-david-lynch-20-years-on

 

Caruth, Cathy (ed). Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1995. Print.

Davenport, Randi. ‘The Knowing Spectator of Twin Peaks: Culture, Feminism, and Family Violence.’ Literature Film Quarterly 4 (1993): 255-259. Print.

Twin Peaks. Dir. David Lynch. CBS Television Distribution, 1990-1991. Television.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. Dir. David Lynch. New Line Cinema, 1992. Film.

Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five. London: Vintage Books, 2000. Print.

Is it okay to laugh now? Constructed comedy in Friends, Rabbits and Edward Scissorhands

RABBITS

Comedy is defined as ‘any discourse or work generally intended to amuse by inducing laughter’ and sitcoms and film tend to order their audience to laugh. Sitcoms are constructed in that a character will say something ‘amusing’ and then pause while a laugh track plays. This is the audiences’ cue to laugh, the moment we are ordered to find this funny. If the laugh track were absent however, viewers would be less likely to laugh. In this clip of Friends for example, the laugh track is removed. In the episode, two characters (Rachel and Ross) got married and have no recollection of it the following morning and their friends inform them of it. Because the actors are waiting for the laugh track to pass, there are long pauses between lines and moments where they are motionless, (particularly evident when Ross and Rachel point at each other in horror). Also, what was originally a comic scene is suddenly more serious in tone.

www.youtube.com/watch?v=4BFSZ8XzWOM

Recent cinema however, has begun to draw attention to comedy’s tendency to tell us when to laugh. In Edward Scissorhands for example, there is a scene where Edward is undergoing an etiquette lesson from his creator. In the scene, the inventor is informing his creation about manners and common courtesy. He then moves on and begins to read poetry to him. When he gets to the ‘punch line’ of a particular, he pauses and looks at Edward, who appears confused. The inventor tells him: ‘Go ahead, smile, it’s funny’ and Edward slowly and very artificially grins. The idea of comedy as constructed is further underlined in this scene because the ‘audience’ here is artificial in that Edward is a machine built by the inventor and whose smile has thereby literally been ‘constructed’.

Another cinematic work that similarly draws attention to comedy as something carefully constructed is David Lynch’s Rabbits, a surrealist sitcom that follows the lives three humanoid rabbits in a living room reminiscent of the stereotypical ‘apartment’ sitcoms usually take place in. Their conversation is disjointed and some of the lines are punctuated by a laugh track. However, the laugh track directly challenges the sitcom formula because it intrusively plays when a character delivers a line that is not inherently funny, as if, according to the article ‘Making sense of David Lynch’, ‘to say that the audience of a sitcom will laugh regardless of what they are seeing’. Loud laughter is heard, for example, when one of the rabbits asks ‘What time is it?’ Also, the duration of the laugh track or typical ‘applause’ heard when a character enters a room is played for too long. The rabbits stand eerily still and it becomes very obvious that they are waiting for it to pass.

Therefore, the viewer’s laugh is just as constructed as the sitcom.

 

The first episode of Rabbits. Note how the rabbit in the suit ‘waits’ for the audience to finish their applause:

http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x3vkph_david-lynch-s-rabbits-ep1_shortfilms

The scene from Edward Scissorhands in which the inventor literally makes Edward laugh:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n2VVJ-mb5zc

For a detailed discussion on Rabbits and comedy parody, see here:

http://the-artifice.com/david-lynch-a-rabbits-tale/

 

Friends. David Crane and Martha Kauffman. Warner Bros. Television, 1994-2004. Television.

Edward Scissorhands. Dir. Tim Burton. 20th Century Fox, 1990. Film.

‘Making Sense of David Lynch: A Rabbits Tale.’ The Artifice, 14 June. 2014. Accessed 13 Feb. 2015. Web.

Rabbits. Dir. David Lynch. 2002. Television.