A noter :
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UNIVERSITE CHARLES-DE-GAULLE. - LILLE III.
STORYTELLING IN PAUL AUSTER'S MOVIES.
Note de recherche présentée en vue de l'obtention de la Maîtrise
par Antoine TRAISNEL
Session de soutenance : Septembre 2002
Directrice de recherche : Mme Claire FABRE
TABLE OF CONTENTS
I. Storytelling Means and Enunciation Strategies
1) Toward a Definition of "Story"
2) The Scenarist's Story
3) Dialogues as the Bridge between Diegesis and Reality
4) Acting and Directing
5) The Filming
6) The Editor's Story
7) Questioning a Narrative Authority
II. Affective and Cognitive Participation of the Receiver
1) Reception Conditions
2) Affective Participation
3) Involvement of the Spectator and Participation of the Story-Receiver
4) Cognitive Participation
5) The Question of Meaning
III. Interference in Paul Auster's works
1) Treating the same Story
The Skier Tale
Auggie Wren's Christmas Story
2) Paul Auster and Women
3) Lulu and the Cinema
Humanum genus est avidum nimis auricularum.
Paul Auster entered cinema by chance. On Christmas Day 1990, Wayne Wang's delivery of The New York Times did not arrive: "I had to go to the neighborhood grocery store to buy one. I bought the last copy on the rack." The producer was reading through the paper when his eye was caught by "a full-page article in the Op-Ed section (...) entitled 'Auggie Wren's Christmas Story', by Paul Auster". Wayne Wang read the short story and decided to meet the novelist, in order to turn the Christmas Tale into a film. Smoke is born of a Christmas Tale, and ends as it begins: silent black and white footage narrating Auggie Wren's Christmas Story concludes the film.
Auster's introduction to cinema could have perfectly fitted the beginning of one of his novels. Besides, it does happen in Mr Vertigo, in which the hero, Walt Rawley (namesake of Paul Auster's favourite historic figure Sir Walter Raleigh), is chosen by Master Yehudi because of his great potential in a levitation career. His novels are full of providential characters who appear suddenly and change the life of the hero. Some ascribe these apparitions to chance, Auster names it necessity.
Who knows if what Wayne Wang says is true or false, and who cares? The storyteller is the one who makes things become true even if they are unbelievable. This is the real material of the film. What is fiction? What is reality? Where is the boundary between truth and lies? Is everything chance? What is necessity?
Paul Auster's universe is outlined by these questions. A universe of Russian dolls, in which everybody seems to be someone else's puppet. A world in which we readers are in turn almighty judges and fall guys. This is what the movies deal with: Smoke is the story of Paul Benjamin, a novelist, someone whose job it is to lie; or it may be the story of Auggie who hides his secret lives behind the desk of his tobacconist's shop; eventually, it may relate Rashid's tribulations in search of his lost father, or Paul's or Thomas's... anyway, they are all the same. But the three of them remain all different, every one exists and is true, at least until we learn other elements that shatter everything.
Blue in the Face is a series of sketches, shot without any rehearsal in six days. At first sight, the sketches seem independent. However, if not obvious at the beginning, the links between each appear as the film goes on. Every actor adds his own contribution; Lou Reed is Lou Reed telling his supposedly true story, whereas Michael J. Fox becomes an inquisitive pollster, Madonna is transformed into an anonymous street singer, etc.
Auster's first experience in cinema led him to make another attempt at a new film project: Lulu on the Bridge, which features Auster not only as a screenplay writer but also as a director. Once again, it is chance that led Auster to involve himself more than he had foreshadowed. Indeed, he first asked his friend Wim Wenders to shoot the film, but a few days after he accepted, a journalist made him realise that the past four films he shot had been about making movies. As Lulu on the Bridge is a movie within a movie, Wenders refused to be its director. Auster also wanted Salman Rushdie to play Dr Van Horn's role but the fatwa against him made him fall back on Willem Dafoe.
Once more, the film travels between fiction and reality, narrating Izzy Maurer's life, a jazz saxophonist, and entering the Pandora's box of his soul. In spite of the success of the first two movies, Lulu on the Bridge did not arouse great enthusiasm in Cannes neither among its spectators. Nonetheless, studying it should be of great help in deciphering what storytelling requires to tell a good story.
"Bullshit is a real talent, Auggie. To make up a good story, a person
has to know how to push all the right buttons. (Pause) I'd say you're up there
among the masters." says Paul Benjamin to Auggie in Smoke.
First we will try to discover what "the right buttons" are through the different levels of storytelling in cinema. What is necessary to a story for it to become a good story? We will detail the different devices and props used by filmmakers after having clarified the notion of 'story'. However, even if listing the steps of movie production is necessary for us to perceive the mechanisms of storytelling, we will rapidly face the problem of narrative authority, which is proper to cinema. Indeed, the scenarist's story is performed by actors guided by directors and eventually assembled and arranged by editors. We will have to find out if one identifiable source emerges from this polyphony in the matter of interpretation and participation of the receiver.
This first study will naturally lead us to question the role of the receiver in the process of storytelling. We will try and understand the importance of reception conditions of movies in the affective participation of the spectator. Then, we will question the cognitive involvement of the addressee in movies reception, and more generally in reception of stories. Finally, we cannot avoid raising the thorny issue of meaning in interpretation, especially when the storyteller's work is commonly indexed in postmodern fiction, which refuses to make sense of a chaotic world according to the philosophers R. Rorty and G. Vattimo. Both understand post-modernity as a riddance of the will to find absolute answers to the insoluble riddles of life.
Eventually, our work will give us clues to clarify the question of coherence, or at least continuity, in Paul Auster's work. Indeed, the simple use of a storytelling technique other than writing is relevant enough to make us ask what these films have in common that could explain the choice of cinema as a medium. How do different media render the same stories, the same topics? We can also wonder if Auster's movies are still part of his general project, if there is one. Interference is recurrent inside Auster's novels, between his novels , and also inside his whole work including the three movies. We will try to examine the implications imposed by the use of cinema or literature in the last chapter in order to ponder the dependence of a story toward its medium.
Those elements create the syntax of the story. (...) the camera is the ink,
the lighting set-ups are punctuation marks, the props are adjectives, the actors'
gestures are the verbs.
1) Toward the Definition of "Story".
Paul Auster indicates in The Art of Hunger that the greatest influence on his
work have been the fairy tales and oral tradition of storytelling. What he admires
in these stories and tales is their economy of bare boned narrative and lack
of detail that leaves enough space in the text for the reader to inhabit. The
story acts as a "springboard of imagination" and it is up to the listener
to complete it. But, we need to define what a story is before describing how
it works in Auster's movies to incite the receiver's emotions and interests.
Storytelling is literally the action of telling stories, but it also means "lying" in common usage. A story is "a narrative or recital of an event, or a series of events, whether real or fictitious", "a narrative, usually of fictitious events, intended to entertain a reader or a hearer."
Classic tales obey certain implicit rules: storytelling is an art ordered by a strict structure comprising beginning, middle and end: a certain equilibrium is disrupted by a crisis, or a stimulus, and the protagonists will struggle to find at the end the former, or a new, equilibrium. Vladimir Propp's idea of what would be "the minimal story" can be summed in a simple equation: balance-imbalance-balance . However, Auster's fiction seems to play with the predictability of such stories; his novels lure the reader thanks to spinning endless stories like a modern (or post-modern) Scherhezade. Auster uses conventions of popular fiction in order to foil them. We need to remember that Auster started his literary career with Squeeze Play (that he wrote under the name of Paul Benjamin), a detective novel; but very soon, with the New York Trilogy, he chose to twist the rules of the genre. Auster gave his tales the shape of inquiries in which, contrarily to what happens in classic detective stories, the clues that should help finding a simple understandable solution lead to thicker mysteries. To draw a parallel with the movies, for instance, Smoke begins with a symbolic rise of curtains as an elevated subway train heads toward Brooklyn and ends with the train leaving. However, if the film respects the unity of place, it ignores unities of action and time. Indeed, if the whole film is set in Brooklyn, it stretches over three months , presents three characters whose stories intermingle, obviously refusing to focus on one single individual and is closed by an open end.
Postmodern fiction, in which Auster's novels are classified, seems to reflect the tiredness of the writer trying to explain a disjointed and godless universe. Blue in the Face's framework clearly wanders from the "schéma actantiel" of Greimas. With a blurred, sometimes absent central organisation in the stories told in most of Paul Auster's writings, we might wonder if his movies follow a similar disorganised scheme or belong to a more classical narrative tradition.
What is a story? The question remains since we cannot define it by its structure.
Admitting that a story is a "recital of events", coherence is not
to be questioned here; but as storytelling is an art, it has to abide by certain
There are at least three rules one can be sure of: first of all, a story needs a content (What is told?, what does the film deal with.). Then it requires a teller, someone who delivers this information, whether linked or not by an obvious sense: Who tells? is an interesting and complex question, because the one who tells, the character, is played by an actor directed by a producer guided by a screenplay writer... This involves many tellers, and our work will be to decipher what role every teller plays. Is he just a medium that delivers information? How does he transform it? The teller has the role of the divine "voice" that makes a story become a story, as explained in Le récit filmique. "[Le récit est] non pas simplement cette 'mise en intrigue' dont parle Paul Ricoeur (1991) mais d'abord une voix." The third compulsory element is a receiver: Who is told? seems to be the most important question. Indeed, here again many receptors are involved. The message sent by the original voice, which we will call the author before answering the question of narrative authority at the end of this section, crosses the diegetic world that acts as a medium between the author and the receiver. Moreover, the diegesis transforms the message through the metaleptic process of mise en abyme that sketches numerous authors and receptors as copies of what happens out of fiction. When Bob narrates his first smoking experience to Auggie, we spectators are given the cigarette story and the narrating scene. In a word, we are given the visual representation of the mediation of the message: the scene echoes, sometimes parodies the relation established between the spectator and the movie.
One could read the film as very straightforward and linear, but this would be problematic because it operates as a multiple and complex mise en abyme. "...I tried to use all the tools at my disposal to tell that story [Lulu on the Bridge] as well as I could: the actors, the camera, the lights, the locations, the sets, the costumes, and so on." says Paul Auster in an interview with Rebecca Prime. "Those elements create the syntax of the story. (...) the camera is the ink, the lighting set-ups are punctuation marks, the props are adjectives, the actors' gestures are the verbs. (...) I somehow felt that they were creating the story with me-with me and for me." This metaphor will be of great support when we will broach the question of the link between "Auster the writer" and "Auster the filmmaker".
Following this statement, we will pause at every level of storytelling to examine the first two questions raised by a story: "What is said?" and "Who tells?" The third question, "Who is told?", will be the subject of the second part of our work studying the affective and cognitive participation of the spectator.
2) The Scenarist's Story.
"The scenarist's story" examines the bonds that cement the different
parts of a movie to make it into a unit, one single story. The script is the
very first stage in the work chain, and it is totally incumbent to Paul Auster
as he wrote the screenplays of the three movies.
We must take into account that Paul Auster's movies are rather peculiar here. The first one, Smoke, could be described as the story of Rashid, a young black American who looks for his father. Nevertheless, this personal quest will soon involve Paul and Auggie. These two are barely more than acquaintances as Paul considers his tobacconist as just "some guy who pushes coins across a counter" ; suddenly, they are brought to know each other by chance. Rashid's intervention appears as a new stimulus in the characters' existence. Or is Paul the one through whom everything happens? Lastly, perhaps it is Auggie who acts as the real initiator of the changes.
None of these hypotheses is true nor false. What is really interesting is the entanglement of the characters who learn by their contact with others; in the end, the three stories intersect and the trinity becomes unity. The evolution of relationships between the characters prevents us from telling the story of one without telling the story of the others. Each scene becomes an absolute necessity in the matter of understanding. For instance Paul eventually finds himself able to enjoy writing again thanks to Auggie's Christmas story and Rashid's encouragement: "Oh by the way, I liked your book." Maybe Rashid would never have revealed his blood ties with Cyrus Cole without the intervention of Auggie and Paul, whose name Rashid usurped to hide his real identity from his father. "The scenarist's story" is full of twists that answer the question "what is told?" and consist of the raw material of the story, which will be modified thanks to diverse techniques.
On the contrary, there is no general scheme in Blue in the Face. What cements
the film cannot be summarised as a story. With no principle of central organisation,
or authorial voice to give meaning to events, the narrative's logical sequence
is disrupted, each fragment exists as a separate unit. With no causal order
to link them together, the fragments seem to be ruled by laws of random and
unpredictable chance. Blue in the Face is a patchwork of improvised sketches
that finds its coherence in its atmosphere, in the omnipresence of the tobacconist's
shop, in the character of Auggie, in Brooklyn ...
There is nevertheless a certain continuity thanks to the fragments of some stories that appear all through the movie such as Dot's will to go to Las Vegas or the question of whether to sell the shop or not, or even the Belgian waffles everyone talks about...
Here the scenarist possesses all the clues, and delivers them in an unusual way. Contrary to the requirements of the cinematic genre, he refuses to tell a story and makes the whole resemble a documentary compiling pieces of the lives of typical Brooklyn residents more than a fiction. Even if storytelling is the heart of Blue in the Face, there is no thread that gives it a solid structure. Auster plays with stories, as he mixes real ones and fake ones, and real ones filmed as fake ones and vice versa. The spectator is given an intricate patchwork of performed scenes and documentaries: the participation of celebrities like Michael J. Fox or Jim Jarmush induces that they are acting and thus supposes the imitation of the real, the mimesis, the fake; on the other hand, the pictures of the former football matches with Jackie Robinson are doubtless anchored in reality. And on top of that, the counting of the potholes is presented as real with a documentary-quality filming: camcorder, free camera, background noise when it is obviously a joke. The result of this entanglement is a non-story about stories in which Paul Auster merrily develops his reflections on truth and reality, that are besides behind the writing of Auggie Wren's Christmas Story. Blue in the Face addresses the spectator a special reading of itself because it adopts the 'documentary type'; Martine Joly talks about a "lecture dominante" , a dominant reading of the work introduced by specific devices (clichés, conventional shooting, trembling camera, characters talking to the camera). Martine Joly distinguishes the postulate of fiction that refuses the existence of a 'real origin' to make believe in a pseudo-world, whereas the postulate of documentaries supposes a 'real enunciator' who guarantees the reality of the content. Blue in the Face shatters the conventions to diminish the limits of fictitious and real worlds.
The scenarist chooses not to give much help to the spectators who must try and see if any Ariadne's thread binds the different sketches and makes of them an understandable whole. We could even wonder then if there is a scenarist's story or not in Blue in the Face. The answer is given by Paul Auster himself who admitted in an interview with Annette Insdorf that even if there had been "no script", he had written "out notes for all the scenes and situations so each actor more or less knew what had to be done" . Indeed, we can see recurrent subjects hinted at in his novels appearing in the film: baseball, smoke and smoking, New York, and especially the will to remain true to oneself whatever the situation is. The question of identity is one of the main topics broached by Auster's novels. "The Brooklyn attitude, as far as I'm concerned, is first, knowing what you're doing, being right, and following through." asserts one of Blue in the Face's characters.
Lulu on the Bridge is a more conventional story, even if the spectator is once more misled: he discovers at the very end that he is watching Izzy's dream, which assumes a realistic appearance. The scheme of the story is there easily distinguishable and can be summed up in a few words: "Izzy Maurer, a jazz musician, is accidentally hit by a bullet during a performance in a New York club, and his life is changed forever. Through the enchantment of a mysterious stone, Izzy is led on a journey into the strange and sometimes frightening labyrinth of his soul" , guided by Celia and the mysterious Dr Van Horn.
The choice of a more or less classic structure to tell a story influences the content itself, as we saw in the three movies. For instance, the choice to focus the spectator's attention on one character, three or even none, depends on the screenplay writer and conditions the reception of the story told. We will decipher its effects on the spectator in the second part, that is to say identification, distance, etc.
The Scenarist's Storytelling Tools
Now that we've seen what the content was, we have to deal with what makes a
"series of events" become a story. The screenplay writer still has
an essential role to play. The devices at his disposal are multiple: for instance,
names appear to be essential elements in Auster's universe. The scenarist is
the one who chooses to produce an eponymous heroine in order to emphasise the
significance of her name in Lulu on the Bridge, and he is also the one who gives
clues to the spectator about Dr Van Horn's assumed severity thanks to onomastics.
Auggie is Smoke's principal character and appears as the linchpin of the diptych. We can put forward certain theories that will only find personal answers in the spectator's mind. Maybe the fact that he shares the first two letters of the scenarist's name is a device to make us spectators think that Auggie has a special role in Smoke and Blue in the Face. At the very end, "The look in [Auggie's] eyes is so mysterious (...) that Paul begins to suspect that Auggie has made the whole thing up." This may be the revelation that Auggie is the one who changed Paul and Rashid's lives, who exercised a real power on what happened. In this case, signs are too imprecise to draw any conclusion but here begins the interpretative work of the spectator.
Besides, this idea is shattered by the fact that Paul Benjamin and Auster share the same first name. When Annette Insdorf asked if there was "an autobiographical element in the film"; the latter answered "not really. The name Paul is a holdover from the Christmas story published in the Times. (...) I wanted to bring reality and fiction as close together as possible..." Nevertheless, what is even more disconcerting is that Paul Benjamin is the name Auster used to sign his early detective novel. Furthermore, he often resorts to similar devices in his novels in which he presents many writers, and this is especially obvious in Leviathan in which the narrator is named Peter Aaron (P.A.). "I wanted (...) to leave some doubt in the reader's mind as to whether the story was true or not." he confesses in the same interview.
In Lulu on the Bridge, Dr Van Horn plays with the heroine's name, and transforms Celia in "S'il y a" when he interrogates Izzy; Thomas (Rashid) refuses to be called by his "real" name because his identity quest hasn't found an answer yet; ironically, Felicity is one of the most unhappy and hopeless characters of Smoke, and like her, many characters have a polysemic name: Dot, Violet, Ruby, Sue, April, Cyrus... Auster also presents famous actors whose celebrity prevents any characterisation. He invites the story-listener to become active, and to understand that receiving is part of the creative process.
Without encroaching on the participation of the receiver, it would be judicious to study the polysemy of the names at this point, considering that Paul Auster often uses double-meaning patronymics in his novels: Anna, the heroine of In the Country of Last Things, is a palindrome, Effing comes from "F...ing" in Moon Palace, his own name is used in City of Glass, in which 'Paul Auster' is first synonymous with 'detective' before embodying the 'happy writer' reflecting what Quinn has lost. About this last example, Auster reveals that he wanted to put his name on the novel as well as in the novel, because the rupture that exists between the inside and the outside fascinates him . The names of Auster's characters are given depth thanks to polysemy, which avoids them to be "empty morphemes" from the beginning, before being filled up, materialised, given shape by elements of their story. Furthermore, Auster plays with his own patronymic, Auster sounding like austère and being the anagram of autres, and he adds about his full name: "Paul" means "little", "auster" refers to "southwind" in Latin mythology, and "southwind" designates "fart" in American slang. He concludes his interview in the Inrockuptibles by declaring solemnly: "I am a little fart."
More than "holdovers", names are clues to penetrate the characters' mystery. Besides, in City of Glass, Daniel Quinn finds "it unpleasant to look in the mirror" as he says to himself: "you're turning into an old fart." For example, Celia comes from the Latin cecilia, literally meaning "blind". The stone episode makes her discover unknown sensations, she feels "more connected (...) to [herself], to the table, (...) to everything that's not [her]." From then on, her acting career, unsuccessful until her encounter with Izzy, takes a new promising start. The simple Celia (who is only known by her first name) becomes Lulu, double because of her performances, double in her own identity with two names, double in the redundancy of the syllables of her name. Duality is the theme of Lulu on the Bridge: basically, Lulu is on top of a river that separates an entity in two. The river that Lulu overhangs represents the impalpable boundary between two distinct entities. The film raises the question of the relation between reality and fiction, truth and lie, that are often interchangeable, like the two syllables of Lulu. Furthermore, we can notice that Izzy's name is almost a palindrome, but if it sounds so, it fails at connecting literally the appearance and the content. This assessment may find its explanation in the reluctance he has in believing in magic whereas Celia does not hesitate getting close to the stone: Izzy tries to warn her "Don't touch it!", but she simply answers "Why not?". Many other examples could illustrate our point, and that is why we have to look closely to the writing processes Paul Auster uses to guide us.
The scenarist also has other ways to communicate with the spectator such as the use of cinematic clichés that create a kind of ironic distance between the story as a film and the receiver as a spectator: the scene with the bad guys attacking Paul, the "Creeper" and his sidekick Goodwin, sets stereotypical thugs; in the same fashion, the apparition of the ghost of the baseball player Jackie Robinson coming back to see Vinnie in order to convince him not to sell the shop is a recurring device used in (bad) movies to give shape to the past. Once again, this can be seen as a warning that tells us to be aware of the relative reality of what we are watching.
3) Dialogues as the Bridge between Diegesis and Reality
This category has to be separated from the scenarist's story simply because
dialogues do not totally belong to the imagination of the latter, as they are
recited by actors. In fact, dialogues belong to the characters, who are the
real media between the screenplay writer and the actors. One can reckon that
characters, as novels' protagonists in Auster's opinion, "exist in their
own rights"; "they are not me" , he adds in an interview. This
point of view is frequently present in literature and cinema in which the author
often considers himself a Demiurge whose creature is brought to life, as happens
with the Orphic puppet Pinocchio who enters the whale's entrails to save his
father (one of Auster's favourite characters, recurring in The Invention of
Solitude), in Frankenstein, in Pygmalion, or in My Fair Lady. We already saw,
through the use of his own patronymic in City of Glass, that what interested
Auster was the rupture between the writer's authority and the character's reality.
The classical theatre already instituted as a convention that the introduction
of a play should put the spectator in the middle of a crisis, to create the
illusion that the diegetic world existed before the intervention of the camera's
gaze, to make the scenes appear credible and veracious, to prove that the characters
exist beyond the narrative frames.
At the very beginning of Smoke, we learn that we arrive in the middle of a conversation thanks to the voices that slowly filter through a hubbub composed of a mix of music, the noise of a train entering Brooklyn and voices. The very beginning of the conversation ("I'll tell you why they're not going anywhere.") enables the dialogue to appear veracious, because of its casualness and because of the fact that we cannot make sense of it with the few elements given; it hands to the characters a reality that precedes the beginning of the film. In the same way, Blue in the Face starts with a question: "Okay, Auggie, you got it?" asks Violet. "You got what?", the spectator wonders.
Words reveal several levels of storytelling: they are communication tools
in stories that happen to the characters; they are raw material in stories that
are told by them. We will only pay attention to the latter category as the former
one concerns the scenarist's work.
In the category we are interested in, we can distinguish three types of stories: firstly, the ones that enter the diegetic reality of the films (for instance Rashid's explanations about his past in Smoke or the birthday girl's monologue in Blue in the Face); secondly, fictitious or historical tales presented as such (Paul's book, the skier tale, Sir Walter Raleigh, baseball stories, figures in Brooklyn); thirdly, intermediary ones (the best example being Auggie Wren's Christmas Story).
The movies are studded by small stories that are obviously meant to give us spectators information about the teller more than to fill a framework, basically because the structures of the films rest on the evolution of some chosen people. Therefore, dialogues between the characters present themselves as vital elements in the matter of storytelling, not only because they enable the scenario to progress, but because they operate noticeable links between characters and above all between the film and the spectator. This idea echoes Barthes's distinction of two categories: functions and clues. Gardies specifies: " les fonctions et les indices. Aux premières le soin de faire progresser le récit, aux seconds celui de l'étoffer. Les unes sont du côté du " faire ", les autres du côté de l'" être "." The stories told by the characters here mostly work as clues.
4) Acting and Directing
The character takes shape through the actor, and his body becomes the first and principal medium between the film and the spectator. Therefore, the choice of a certain actor is not insignificant. The actor has to melt into the diegetic world. Between the scenario character and the movie character, a casting is necessary. We learn in interviews that such actor was destined to be such character, or at least that Paul Auster had very precise ideas on this point:
Rebecca Prime : "Did you write the script with any specific actors in
Paul Auster : Harvey Keitel. He was the only one. It's not that I set out writing a role for Harvey, but once I got into the story a bit, I began seeing him in my mind, and at a certain point, it became inconceivable to think of Izzy without also thinking of Harvey. (...) The way he moves, the irresistible qualities of his face, his groundedness. It's as if Harvey embodies something that belongs to all of us, as if he becomes us..."
The choice of the comedians is primordial because they act as a signs in a
non-textual narration. We can analyse the character as a sign caught within
a semiotic system, with its own narrative function. Contrarily to textual characters,
the movie character is from the start a "full sign" , which means
that as soon as he appears, he carries a lot of signification if we accept to
consider that an image is more complex than a word, especially when the image
is constantly in motion. Dot cannot hide her obesity, Rashid cannot hide he
is young and black. As we mentioned, the visual sign is always changing whereas
names in a novel remain stable in general. And all the fragmented and patchy
images of a movie-character build his unity. From the close up to the general
shot, from one profile to the other, the comedian is incessantly cut, but his
unity comes from this "non-stability" of his image. On top of that,
a character is made of sounds. His voice and the sound effects that accompany
him participate into the building of a character. Violet's Spanish accent emphasises
her hot temperament. Finally, other elements such as props, costumes or habits
can be added to characters to create their identity.
The storyteller has the character as sign at his disposal to build a story. However, the complexity of this sign has to be clarified to understand what the teller's work is. André Gardies differentiates four components in what he calls "la figure actorielle" . Some of these components ("l'actant", "le personnage") introduce the characters into the diegetic world; some do not belong to the story but participate in creating it ("le rôle", "le comédien-interprète"). The most interesting relation between actors and characters is set in Lulu on the Bridge, as Mira Sorvino stars in the film as Mira Sorvino in a picture on a wall and at the same time as Celia, a flesh and blood character (in the diegetic world) who is actually an actress who plays Lulu. ("There's Mira Sorvino's face on the wall - and the movie begins. In a way, it duplicates what we all experience when we watch movies. We walk into a dark place and leave the world behind. We enter the world of make believe." )
The actors' performances represent a coded message from a semiotic point of view on three levels, says Iouri Lotman: that of the actor, that of daily behaviour, and that of the director . This element was certainly taken into account by Auster and Wang, as we saw that the actors had not been chosen by chance, and especially because the psychological-apprenticeship genre, to which Smoke and Lulu on the Bridge belong, asks for perfect interpretations from the actors. Auster here exposes his idea on how the actor becomes a storyteller himself:
Paul Auster: "Sometimes, I have the impression that in writing a novel one becomes an actor. One penetrates into another character, another imaginary being, and ends up becoming this other character and this other imaginary being. It is for this reason, without doubt, that I have had so much fun working with the actors of Smoke and Blue in the Face. The writer who writes stories and the actor who acts both take part in the same effort: to penetrate into imaginary beings, to give them a body and life-likeness, to impart on them weight and reality."
5) The Filming
From a semiotic point of view, objects, props, setting, costumes have a great
significance. Like actors, they are full morphemes and immediately give us precious
pieces of information. For instance, Paul's glasses and style makes us reckon
he's an intellectual, whereas Auggie's cool style and job may lure us, even
Paul misjudges the tobacconist and doesn't imagine how surprising the latter
can be. The Belgian waffles fulfil the purpose of absolute ideal for a tramp
and appear as the cement of a neighbourhood, in spite of their absence. Ruby's
eye patch hides her infirmity but at the same time exhibits it and hands her
over to the gibes of the people who represent her past: Felicity and Auggie.
It is as if her new appearance helped her reawaken and fight the old demons
of her life.
The most recurring element in both films is of course smoke, which deserves great attention were it only because it has been chosen as a title. It certainly gives coherence to the movies, internally as well as in the diptych. Smoke acts as a link, it is not material but made of solid particles. It reveals and hides the truth at the same time: " smoke can obscure things and make them illegible." Smoke also refers to the link between death and life (cremation), and the idea of cancer and heart cases is never far from it as warnings are written on every cigarette pack; pleasure is never completely separated from pain. Smoking appears to be a privileged moment in which there is no action but the one of thinking. Thinking and smoking are thus bound as if the latter gave a materiality to the former. The volutes express the twists and turns of thoughts, at the beginning dense, low, and progressively ascending, dispelling, forming numerous little veins that slightly disappear. The smoke invades every human relationship in the movies but is so silent that we hardly notice it. Measuring the weight of smoke would help us to understand the subtleties that build the characters' lives. But Paul reminds us how delicate it is. It would be like weighing a soul.
If props are the privilege of visual arts, including cinema but also drama,
the shooting is the only work that totally belongs to cinema. The director supervises
the visual techniques and makes use of long shots, low angles, travellings,
focuses, zooms and so on to deliver different meanings to the pictures of the
movies. In Blue in the Face, we see the back of Jackie Robinson, the first great
Black baseball player who played with the Dodgers of Brooklyn, and Vinnie facing
him and thus facing the camera. This process serves the representation of the
past facing the present, and we soon understand, thanks to their position in
the space let at their disposal by the camera, that the one who is most anchored
in the present time is not the one we reckon. Indeed, space becomes a determining
element here, because the visual element needs space to be expressed. In that
scene, Vinnie sits down while the player stands up, and he is the one who listens,
a position in which he is not used to being if we refer to his argument with
Dot entitled "Listen to me". It is as if he faced a mirror that reflected
an image of what he missed by forgetting that money was not the only yardstick
of things' values - the scene echoes Stone rebuilding his own perfect world
("the City of the World is (...) an autobiography, but in another way,
it is what you might call a utopia" ) in The Music of Chance.
In Smoke, Wayne Wang makes the spectator become more and more intimate with the characters as he gradually makes closer and closer shots, "as the disparate characters become more involved with each other" and as we learn to know them. At the end of Smoke, we nearly enter Auggie's eyes during the very long take in which he tells his Christmas story. He is so close that we cannot prevent believing what he says. When the close-up becomes an extreme close-up, the image of the character takes over the whole screen and no other relational interplay (which exist when other elements appear in the visual field and provoke redundancy, complementarity or even contradiction between the character and the back-foreground) intervenes between the spectator and the character. "By the time we get to the last scene in the restaurant, the camera has apparently moved in on the actors as close as it ever will. A limit has been established, the rules have been defined-and then suddenly the camera pushes in even closer ( ), breaking down the last barrier against genuine human intimacy." This black and white sequence is introduced by a scene between Auggie and Paul in the restaurant. At the end of it, the characters' smiles let doubts appear about the truth of the story, the camera follows the smoke as it rises toward the ceiling and a song suddenly starts. We see hands typing "Auggie Wren's Christmas Story" on a typewriter. All these devices introduce Benjamin's story, and Auster's at the same time.
The fact that the scene is silent and black and white gives a sensitive quality to the sequence that rests on images more than on anything else. We already know what is going to happen, therefore its interest is definitely narrative and not informative. Here, the film devices insist on the elements that play significant roles in the story. For instance, when Auggie knocks on the door, Granny Ethel opens and we soon understand thanks to a close-up on her face that she is no dupe, that she pretends as much as Auggie does. The story doesn't tell events but is an allegory of what truth and honesty are: "Auggie: I lied to her, and then I stole from her. I don't see how you can call that a good deed." Paul replies: "You made her happy."
As a conclusion to the chapter on filming, we could make an attempt here at
understanding what Lulu on the Bridge lacked to be acknowledged as a good movie.
It is indisputable that Auster is aware of the importance of images in cinema.
Indeed, during his stay in Paris in 1967, he failed at the Idhec examination
but continued writing silent-films' synopses, now lost (there are three silent-scenes
in Lulu on the Bridge). Hence his last novel, The Book of Illusions, which relates
the story of Hector Mann, a silent-film maker. Auster evokes his contempt for
Hollywood-made movies in an interview to Le Monde, and confesses he regrets
cinema's former times. Moreover, he says : "Le muet a inventé une
syntaxe de l'oeil, la pensée traduite en action, la volonté humaine
s'exprimant par le truchement du corps." We can easily foresee the great
contribution of semiotics here, but this will be broached in the second part
of our study. If Lulu on the Bridge is riddled with interesting shots, powerful
dialogues, puzzling settings, if each scene resists exhaustive analyses, what
lacks in it may be the resort to images, not as semiotic elements, but as driving
forces that give the movie rhythm and unity.
On the one hand, we cannot deny that most scenes fully use images. For instance, at the very end, after Celia jumps off the bridge, we see Izzy sitting in front of Philip, Lulu's producer (Lulu is the film Celia plays in). Philip's office is a smallish, simple room. We are given to see three movie posters hanging on the wall. The first one is The Incredible Shrinking Man, the second Singing in the Rain, the third La Grande Illusion. These are clear messages to the spectators: what you see is illusion, it is incredible because it is cinema, but at the same time you agree to believe it, it is the deal cinema offers you. On the other hand, Lulu on the Bridge may find its drawbacks in the manner the scenes are constructed and bound together. The next paragraph might help us understand why rhythm is primordial in cinema, and how Lulu on the Bridge fails to hold the spectator for lack of rhythm.
6) The Editor's Story
The shots have to be assembled and arranged in such way that the action proceeds
in a logical and coherent manner. Editing involves selecting and joining the
shots based on the following considerations: their place within the narrative,
their contribution to the mood of a scene, to the rhythm, to the elucidation
of the film's themes and to the fulfilment of the director's purpose. Eisenstein
advocated that shots should not so much connect as collide so as to affect the
viewer by their collision. He adds that montage "has a double function
as the vehicle of both the depictive narrative and the rhythmically generalised
" Cutting is not a merely sequential arrangement of shots; it
is based on other principles that concern rhythm especially. Editing is the
task of an "omniscient observer watching all the actions of the actors"
, Sheldon Kahn explains to Gabriella Oldham in her conversations with film editors.
As we will see, rhythm is what makes a delightful movie of Blue in the Face
and what certainly lacks in Lulu on the Bridge; indeed, if rhythm is made of
ruptures, of cuts, it is above all what creates continuity, as silences organise
a piece of music and make a whole of a sequence of notes.
The three movies generally resort to the most common way of joining two separate shots: the cut. Predominantly straight, the cut sometimes becomes a crosscut when the camera presents two actions occurring simultaneously, as for example in the scene in which Rashid arrives to Paul's flat while the latter is attacked by the Creeper; the cut may also be replaced by a match cut when there is no break in continuity: here, the smoke plays a significant transition role between the different scenes: we leave a character lighting a cigarette and the following shot begins with a close up on some smoke and we slowly understand that it is a new scene while the camera widens the frame and lets appear different characters in a different place. The use of this traditional technique finds its greatest point in the pace of a movie. The strength of Blue in the Face is definitely the editing. Wang alternates long takes and short ones, monologues and flashes, Lou Reed's slow and low-pitched voice and Dot's shrill and nervous claims, fictitious and real scenes, present time and historical events. He proceeds to an accelerated montage during Dot's scene with Vinnie, editing into progressively shorter shots to create a mood of tension and excitement. The most interesting element to notice is that the pace of the editing varies according to the characters filmed: it seems hard for the cameraman to follow Sue's steps, and the numerous cuts necessary to edit her argument with Dennis render their mutual hate; on the other hand, Auggie's mysterious nature mesmerises the camera that cannot but privilege him with longer shots and less cuts than other characters.
Sometimes, cuts are replaced by fades. "The camera travels back into the workroom. We see PAUL at work. Fade out. Fade in. We see PAUL at his desk eating a TV dinner while still writing in the pad." Fade is a common device to indicate that some time has passed, it is an implicit process in cinema, accepted by the audience as a classic (découpage classique is used for Hollywood style of seamless narration). In Blue in the Face, the Waffle Man's scene is followed by a dissolve. The superimposition of a fade out over a fade in representing a hazy Belgian waffle poster gives form to his dream. The statistics scenes in the movie seem to belong to a documentary because of the filming, but also thanks to the cutting. There is no dissolve, no fade, no flash, with a view to being objective, or at least to pretend it. The editor has a great range of choices concerning the montage, and Auster agrees to say that it saved Blue in the Face: "while we were shooting I thought that everything [Lou] said sounded boring and that we'd cut it out later. But the next day when we looked at the footage we realised that cutting would save it. ( ) It was the same with Jim Jarmush. Cutting can work wonders." The editor's role is to turn sequels of images that form little units called shots into a story. According to André Gaudreault and François Jost, the editor tells what images can only show and therefore becomes the real narrator. "Le narrateur filmique (...), se saisissant de ces microrécits, y inscrirait, par l'intermédiaire du montage, son propre parcours de lecture, consécutif au regard qu'il aurait d'abord posé sur cette substance narrative première que sont les plans." We can already qualify our assessment that the editor was the narrator as the quotation recalls that there cannot be montage without the work that pre-exists this storytelling means.
It is also incumbent upon the editor to deal with the credits. If we turn our attention on Blue in the Face's credits, different characteristics are worth a study. Firstly, the names of the actors and of the film makers are hand-written. This choice gives us clues on its quality and pretensions. Paul Auster describes it as "one of the oddest films ever made: wall-to-wall wackiness, a lighter than air creampuff, an hour and a half of singing, dancing, and loopy shenanigans. It's a hymn to the great People's Republic of Brooklyn, and a cruder, more vulgar piece of work would be hard to imagine." On top of that, the credits are interrupted by little scenes, revealing the patchy functioning of the movie. The music also plays a significant role in the first impression delivered. We will study its function by questioning the place and importance of the heterodiegetic elements inserted in movies in general, and more specifically in the films we study.
Tom Waits's song at the end of Smoke doesn't belong to the diegetic world and therefore announces a break in the story, in fact the conclusion. This song claims that everyone is "innocent when he's dreaming". It belongs to black American music and the singer has a strong particular voice. All these elements act as signs on different levels. The geographical origin of the Tom Waits song strengthens the anchorage of the film in New York, and justifies Blue in the Face, as its sequel devoted to Brooklyn. The lyrics partly unveil the meaning of this black and white metaphor. The musical part contributes to the magic of this moment, transforming the story into a real Christmas tale, to an extent depending on the spectators' sensitivity. This feeling is reinforced by the fact that the music is not part of the story, it seems to be an additional clue given by the storyteller who would mix at this moment fiction and reality to mislead us in order to confirm the point he defends. Heterodiegetic music comes from an omnipotent source, and we will try to identify this source later in the study.
Furthermore, voice-over narration is used in Blue in the Face to introduce the events of the film. We hear Auggie's voice telling us spectators that everything around him became crazy during a couple of weeks: "This is how I remember it." . The aim of this technique is to enable the spectator to enter the time and space of the fiction easily, but it clearly rejects the attempt of traditional stories at making people forget that what they see is fiction. This method, as well as the words appearing on the screen ("Summer 1990", "Listen to me", "Rashid"), establishes a connivance between the narrator and the receiver and gives us clues about who the narrator is, even if the voice is in turn omniscient (titles) or subjective (voice-over). "The traditional use of the voice-off constitutes a denial of the frame as a limit and an affirmation of the unity and homogeneity of the depicted space" , analyses Mary Anne Doane. At the same time, it may be another way the real narrator uses to lure and mislead us, pretending that there is only one narrator.
7) Questioning a Narrative Authority
Our study started with the research for the different storytelling techniques
which played a role in the making of a movie, but it also turned out to be a
quest for the different storytellers. Raising the question of the narrative
authority would inform us on how significant Paul Auster's participation in
the movies is, and what is imputable to his work. However, such a task, independently
from its interest, proves to be rather impossible as every stage of the film
production is indissociable from the others.
Is there one narrator? Is there a narrator? The answer seems to be obvious at first, as we defined a story at the beginning with the postulate of his/her existence (among other aspects). However, the impossibility to find him/her as a singular and precise subject makes it difficult for an analysis of his/her intentions and desires. Our second part will deal with the participation of the receivers, which is most of the time the result of the combination of different narrative stratagems, and we will not have to take into account the question of the narrator, but the question of the room for manoeuvre left to the spectator has to be raised here. Is the spectator completely free as regards interpretation? Are movies to be considered as objects on their own, independent from their creators? It is obvious that the question of narrative authority finds its entire sense in movies, which result from the work of many storytellers, and especially in movies dealing with storytelling, thus in which plenty of tellers and listeners intermingle. If it becomes possible for us to decree one common source to a cinematic production, the reception will be eased. Indeed, on the one hand, the idea of multiple narration implies many levels of participation with no central organisation. On the other hand, the union of different elements toward a common narrative objective enriches the narration, and makes it complex but unique, acting on different levels but toward a common finality (we are not saying here that the presupposed narrative authority prevents the receiver from any kind of free participation).
Divergent theories that we will discuss rapidly deal with this point. The tradition always recognised almost unanimously the necessity of the existence of a fundamental narrative authority, at least from a theoretical point of view. A majority of analysts agree on the fact that the spectator should occupy an active place in the creation of sense in movies and artistic creations in general (which we will discuss in the second part of the work): Roger Odin, Roland Barthes, Umberto Eco; nevertheless, few of them looked into the problem of narrative authority. Christian Metz considers that cinematic enunciation is above all "metadiscursive", as it shows the film itself as an object. So much so that the film becomes its enunciator, and every step of the process of the making of the film can be considered as negligible (in the matter of analysis of course). Therefore, Metz warns us against the intention of imputing anthropomorphic characteristics to the narrator whereas the latter is barely identifiable as an authority. To him, the movie is at the same time the narrator and the narrative. Every cause exterior to it becomes thus unimportant for the analyst. Furthermore, Metz refuses to attribute the narration of a film to a precise person because, contrary to linguistic utterance, the film ensues from different sources.
Ceux qui estiment qu' "énonciation au cinéma" signifie quelque chose ne doivent pas prendre à la légère cet argument, qui est en vérité très fort. Il nous oblige à une importante reconversion : à concevoir un appareil énonciatif qui ne soit pas entièrement déictique (et donc anthropomorphique), pas personnel (comme les pronoms que l'on appelle ainsi), et qui n'imite pas de trop près tel ou tel dispositif linguistique, car l'inspiration linguistique réussit mieux de loin.
Some theorists even refused the simple idea of a narrator in cinema. Recently,
David Bordwell questioned the necessity of defining a narrative authority in
movie analysis. His objective was just to clarify the theoretical process, he
distinguished thus two categories of narration: one that presupposes a narrator,
and one for which a debate on such a point is useless. In the end, Gaudreault
and Jost ask in Le Récit cinématographique whether the problem
raised by Bordwell is real, and they point out the closeness of his point with
Metz's. The question of the narrator is a thorny issue in cinema as there are
many levels of narration. Nevertheless, the reconciliation of the two is simple
if one agrees with Metz's idea to gather narrator and narration in one single
element: the film.
The idea of the film as a gigantic narrator (in fact a gigantic narrative) finds a real interest especially in Smoke and Blue in the Face that appear to be tales on tellers. As we said, each character is a teller (furthermore embodied by an actor) who tells more about himself in the end than about his subject. Auster's cinema is obviously narcissistic, "metadiscursive", self-reflexive (as every teller is, seems to assert Paul Auster). But at the same time, it is 'shy' and unreliable. The mise en abyme finds its climax in Lulu on the Bridge, the movie within the movie, the movie as the metaphor of Izzy and Celia's lives (the Pandora's box of his soul is opened by Celia, who teaches him how to live again), the movie as a reflection on truth and lies, the narration on narration. The hide-and-seek game between the true and the false is present in the title itself: Lulu is to be found on the bridge, between two separate solid elements that are linked together only on one tiny element. Lulu is nowhere but on the rim of two elements that can be reality and fiction, the bridge becomes the link between the actor and the character, between the teller and the tale. Even in the movie (the photograph of Mira Sorvino on the wall at the very beginning can make us suppose that Izzy invents Celia as he lies dying), Celia is the link between Mira Sorvino and Lulu. Indeed, when we see the ambulance going past Celia at the end, Lulu and Mira become fictitious characters invented by Izzy dying. We will deepen our study of the frontier between reality and fiction in the following part while focusing on the participation of the receiver.
We will keep in mind the idea of the existence of a narrator, but whoever or whatever this narrator is, our work on how the narrative is received by the spectator on affective and cognitive levels will remain the same in our second part. Telling stories on storytellers is for cinema very similar to the metatextual experience of modern writers who are attached to the "adventure of writing" more than "writing an adventure" according to Ricardou in Pour une théorie du Nouveau Roman: "le récit n'est plus l'écriture d'une aventure, mais l'aventure d'une écriture". To Benveniste, an important part in the study of works consists of looking for traces of enunciation in the utterance : prolepses, close-ups, analogies... But as soon as we try and look closer at the enunciator, he/she becomes part of the enunciation in the sense that at the moment the spectator considers the enunciator as a subject acting, the latter becomes an object enunciated. In a word, the question "who speaks?" is useless, and Barthes corroborates this idea in "The Death of the Author". Eventually, the quest for a unique narrator finds its limits in the necessity to gather all the narrative sources into a general narration. Benveniste's theory about the intentions of a certain narrative authority is only valid in the perspective of the reception. Our role is now evidently to decipher the repercussions of the enunciation strategies of the storyteller on the listener, in other words of cinema on us spectators.
Nevertheless, the question of narrative authority remains important in the matter of coherence. From a literary point of view, the authority of the author, as the name indicates, is less to be disputed. But in his films, Paul Auster had to share his stories with others, and he confessed how painful (but rich) it was to see his texts twisted in some actors' mouths: "But still, you work hard to get the words to scan in a certain way, and it's painful to see them come out in another way " . Our study in the third part will be an attempt at seeing to what extent his implication in the movies worked as the glue that provided an inner coherence to the works, and whether it bound the films together or not.
PART II :
AFFECTIVE AND COGNITIVE PARTICIPATION OF THE RECEIVER.
Toute oeuvre est dogmatique.
L'écrivain est le contraire d'un dogmatique.
In this chapter, we must take into account the subjective aspects of storytelling reception and thus accept a certain degree of uncertainty. The range of spectators is so wide that if there is any room for free interpretation in Auster's movies, it would be impossible to describe exhaustively the different consequences on the audience. Nonetheless, we can instantly make out two categories of reception, feeling and understanding, according to André Gardies. To him, the sensory dimension of the visual and auditory processes that occur when watching a film makes of this watching a phenomenological experience in which both emotions and the intellect are required. "L'implication du spectateur est alors au moins double. Cognitive par l'activité de coopération qui lui est demandée (celle-ci n'étant pas spécifique) ; sensorielle et émotionnelle en raison du matériau proprement cinématographique."
Our very first task will be an attempt at describing the reception conditions that enable an exacerbation of the spectator's senses and render him/her more aware of what he/she is given. Soon, we will have to raise the question of the cognitive participation, as often, the same elements act on both levels, affective and cognitive.
1) Reception Conditions.
The economic and physical conditions one meets with to appreciate a cinematic work count in the reception process. Gardies enumerates the different steps of the constraints: going out, travelling from a place to another, paying, entering a new room especially prepared to welcome you, facing technical components and the ritual that precedes the emergence of the first pictures. The spectator's environment changes totally as if the devices "were meant to predispose him to watch-listen to stories."
La position assise et le confort du siège, l'ordre rassurant des fauteuils dans la salle, l'obscurité relative qui s'installe sans brutalité et la luminescence que renvoit l'écran invitent au relâchement du Surmoi, à quelque chose qui s'apparente, selon une classique remarque d'ordre psychanalytique, à une régression infantile.
This childish behaviour is summarised by Christian Metz thanks to his famous
psychological phrase: "je sais bien, mais quand même". I know
it is cinema, but I'm not completely sure, because what appears on the screen
belongs to my space. From then on, what is told, benefiting from the impression
of reality given by photographs and sounds, becomes part of my rationality,
part of my truth. Therefore movies clearly belong to two levels of reception:
the spectator is at the same time in and out of the film, his affectivity is
requested as well as his distance.
For instance, David Lynch invites the audience to follow the girls' inquiry in Mulholland Drive, and prevents it at the same time, for it not to fall in the trap cinema leads you in. Lynch's movie is divided into two parts, the first one being the blond heroin's dream whose life is a real success, the second one being her nightmare as her acting career is a tragic failure. Both parts assume a dreamlike atmosphere, as if none of them was totally reliable, but most elements of the two halves match and echo each other, as if both were true. The duality of the film refers to the duality of the mediation process: the movie, like any medium, acts as a link between the couple emitter-receptor; furthermore, the duality of the receptor himself is to be added to the basic distinction teller/listener.
In Le signifiant imaginaire, Christian Metz analyses the complex relation that binds the spectator and the movie. He affirms that the spectator is a voyeur but "the film is not exhibitionistic" as it does not look at the spectator looking at it. It knows the spectator is looking at it but it ignores him. This situation sums up the kind of regression the spectator is subjected to: he has an impression of power and control when he is only given what the film decides to deliver. In a word, the spectator accepts to be dominated by the film but refuses to admit it. This is interesting to the extent that such a complex relation makes it possible to understand both affective and cognitive participation. The spectator is in the position of a receiver, which is frustrating because he sees what the film decides to deliver; the frame of the screen represents the limits of the spectator's possibilities, so to speak. We clearly see here the duality of the spectator: he watches the film and has the power to understand it as he desires, but he is dependent on what the film gives him. The perpetually-inverted relation dominant/dominated renders him in turn subject and object, active and passive, at the same time making sense of what he watches and being emotionally prisoner of it.
André Gardies lists up the screen as another dominant instrument in the process of reception. Because the projector is behind the spectator, the screen appears to be the visual source of the film. The narrative voice authority issues from it, and as to double the effect, it dominates the audience and looks gigantic. Gardies adds the singular paleness of the light that emanates from the screen to the elements that create the kind of fascination one can experience in a cinema. "Le spectacle qui s'inscrit sur la surface de la toile a toujours à la fois quelque chose de fantomatique et d'hyper réel."
The last way to introduce the imaginary is indeed the principle of identification. The cinema is a machine that makes the spectator become an over-receptive subject. The fiction films are especially concerned because they propose a coherent diegesis most of the time, or at least form a unit limited by the credits, that invites the audience to enter a new world. But this world has very often the shape of the "real" one (photographic resemblance, imitative sounds) and therefore facilitates the identification process that leads the spectator into a position of deep affective participation. That is confirmed by the trauma generated by the return to reality at the end of a showing. Roland Barthes, quoted by Gardies, described the difficulty he had to re-face the "real world" and emphasised the importance of the physical ("sensori-motrice" ) and affective weight of a movie reception.
2) Affective Participation.
The physical conditions in the reception of a movie play a significant role in the affective participation of spectators, but they only stimulate this participation to the extent that they sharpen the receiver's senses. Therefore, thanks to the processes we have studied, the spectator is prepared, conditioned, free from any concern at all but the film he is watching.
Koulechov's well-known experiment in 1918 proves to be the best example of
the ambiguous relation that links storytelling means to the affective participation
of the receiver. Koulechov's point was to study the importance of an actor's
performance in relation to the role played by the different elements composing
a shot regarding emotional reception. He joined a shot of an actor, Mozjoukhine,
to different shots with different emotional contents (a child playing, a coffin,
etc.). The spectators unanimously admired the extraordinary talent of Mozjoukhine,
without suspecting that the expression of the face had remained the same, and
that the only change had been their reaction to the montage. In a dark room
in which one is left alone with a gigantic projection of images accompanied
by loud sounds or words, comfortably sat, the slightest change or unusual stability
in the spectator's reception turns out to be accentuated.
In the same fashion, in Smoke, Felicity's aggressiveness toward her mother is changed into a desperate plea on behalf of her capacity to manage without any help. Her speech begins with "What do you want me to say?", as if Ruby and Auggie were expecting something from her, then it becomes "What the fuck do I need your help for?" and she ends up crying, abandoned by her parents. But from the very beginning of the scene, as the camera backs up to show the room, we discover "a tawdry place with little furniture: a double mattress on the floor (the bed is unmade), a rickety wooden table and two chairs along the far wall." The room's decay makes the spectator realise the extent of her utter destitution. The analogy is completed by her excessive use of make-up on the one hand, as we see clumsily applied rouge on her cheeks and a slash of red lipstick on her mouth, and her stringy unwashed hair on the other hand. The character expresses something that is not reflected by her environment, and the different signals sent by both what is heard and what is seen help the spectator understand the interest of the scene, and its emotional impact. Indeed, the double reading of the scene reveals Felicity's lack of coherence and simultaneously her sadness. Indeed, Felicity claims she does not need parents nor anyone else, she certifies she can manage and be happy with her life on the one hand, but on the other hand she tries to hide her pallor, she shouts at her parents, revealing thus that she has a grudge against them, and she proudly commits her independence into "her man's" keeping: "What the fuck do I need your help for? I've got a man, don't I?".
Koulechov's experiment shows that actors' performances are always relative to what appears beside their images on the screen. Felicity's scene illustrates the importance of the relation between her character and the room in which she lives. Her detestable anger is relativized by the state of mind in which we imagine she is by observing her living conditions. Every element appearing on the screen has to be taken into account, and has to be considered as a sign. In close-ups and extreme close-ups, the spectator is only given the actor's face to see, so that, semiotic analyses would be of no help. On the contrary, when shots become medium or, even better, general, semiotics becomes useful. Obviously, Mozjoukhine's expressiveness has nothing to do with his acting talent, as the same shot is always used, but it is imputable to the montage. However, the mechanical juxtaposition of different shots is not enough to obtain such effects. Eisenstein showed that the relation between two objects, taken together or successively, was complex. To have a real exchange, there has to be at least one common point between the two. Actors are not the only factors responsible for the credibility of the character, nor for the effects provoked on a spectator's reception. As said in the first part, we have to analyse the character (and not the actor) as a sign making sense of what is around him, and vice versa as finding his signification through his environment.
Many authors have described the character's role as very complex because he
is a medium, and not an entity. "Dans cette perspective, on voit combien
il serait erroné d'analyser le personnage du film comme un simple personnage
: la spécificité du médium cinématographique fait
de la figure actorielle une sorte de nud de significations." We already
studied the differences between the "actant", the role, the character
and the actor in the first part. Here we are interested in the relation between
the diegetic world and the world of the spectator. What is the spectator given
to make sense of what he watches and hears?
We took the example of the "figure actorielle" in the prior paragraphs to introduce the notion of semiotics. Indeed, the character is the most interesting sign to be observed in a movie as he changes constantly. He often represents the constant link between the elements of the shots, and if he evolves, he also remains the same. Movies are always compared with narrative texts in which characters act as empty morphemes interacting with other elements that give them a plain signification. Philippe Hamon proposes an analysis of the novel character as a sign in "Pour un statut sémiologique du personnage"
Morphème " vide " à l'origine (il n'a de sens, il n'a de référence que contextuelle), il ne deviendra " plein " qu'à la dernière page du texte, une fois terminées les diverses transformations dont il aura été le support et l'agent. Mais le signifié du personnage, ou sa " valeur ", pour reprendre un terme saussurien, ne se constitue pas seulement par répétition ( ) ou par accumulation et transformation ( ), mais aussi par opposition, par relation vis-à-vis des personnages de l'énoncé.
In Paul Auster's movies, characters are definitely subjects: the films are
made around their lives, characters are the mainsprings of their evolution;
and at the same time, they interact, they influence each other's lives, they
react to the environment's pressures, they are objects. The camera obeys them,
as its moves in accordance with their actions; but the camera often seems to
know more about the characters than it reveals, sometimes even more than the
characters themselves. Such a duality carries some weight in the affective participation
of the receiver, who is at the best place, outside and inside the diegetic world,
nearly omnipotent (he is often deluded into believing it). As spectators, we
are the only witnesses of the unsaid, of the proleptic power of the visible
over the straightforward fictional facts. This is also a force in the capacity
of understanding but we will postpone the cognitive participation in order to
finish with the emotional contributions of storytelling methods.
Semiotics can help in many different aspects. Considering the emotional reception, and we saw it with Felicity's scene, the story told can be contradicted by the images present in the background. In the same manner, Cyrus's anger toward Rashid when he discovers that the latter is his son has to be understood as the ultimate fight he undertakes in order to forget his past. The image of his son looking at him in the background, on top of telling us that it will be impossible for him to flee his responsibilities any longer, brings a really pathetic view of the father-and-son relation.
Doubtless, this echoes Felicity's, and both scenes will be useful to of understand when we study the question of identity, but no one can take off the pathos we find in them, and it is brought by the indications given by the director's work.
More frequently, the setting in which the scenes take place are redundant indications, pointing out some elements or symbolising the secret wish of a character. Hitchcock's famous scene of the train entering the tunnel used as a sexual metaphor in North by Northwest is a veiled message to the spectator. In Lulu on the Bridge, the very first shots introduce the main character, Izzy, a jazz veteran in his early fifties, peeing into one of the urinals while two hundred people are clapping rhythmically urging him to come out on stage. We guess later, when we happen to know Izzy better, that he urinates on the crowd that acclaims him. Indeed, Izzy is a bad, egoist, selfish guy. Paul Auster indicates how sad the character we are looking at is, but his way of doing it is clever enough to let the spectator laugh at Izzy's contempt, however pathetic the scene is. The connivance between the storyteller(s) and the spectator establishes a special relationship that leads the latter to be opened to what is given. He is deeply inside the film and at the same time kept out of it, obliged to remain critical toward it.
Many other devices serve the emotional aspects of the films: the music (Tom Waits's song in Smoke's last scene), the quality of dialogues (in Blue in the Face, the amusing and touching scene in which Bob (Jim Jarmush) comes to Auggie to smoke his last fag and confesses the particular relation that unites him and tobacco: "You know, I've never had a girlfriend who didn't smoke. Maybe that means if I quit I'll never have sex again. (Dissolve) But having a cigarette after sex... that's like... a cigarette never tasted like that. You know, share a cigarette with your lover..."), the camera angles (the high-angle shots of Izzy in the hospital or in the dark room with Dr Van Horn emphasising his despondency), the credits and written intermissions, and so on...
Listing exhaustively the cinematic devices would be impossible on the one hand, and repetitive on the other hand, as we described them in the first part. Our point here was to understand what affective impact these techniques had on the spectator, however our answer will be necessarily subjective, and thus relative. The affective participation depends on the physical conditions of reception of the spectators, which vary therefore for every case, on their culture, and it is often supposed that American people are more liable to understand Biblical references scattered in Smoke than Europeans for whom Christian culture is often less extensive, Brooklyn residents may also be more inclined to be touched by Blue in the Face, and more generally Auster's readers can decipher his nods and recurrent themes like chance and necessity, death, identity, silence, which are all present in Lulu on the Bridge.
According to Paul Auster: "[Lulu on the Bridge] is a very emotional story, a story about deep and powerful feelings. It's not a puzzle, not some code to be cracked, and you don't have to "understand" it in a rational way to feel the force of the emotions." We saw that his movies, and especially Lulu on the Bridge, were filled with emotion. We tried to show what the storytelling means were to involve the spectator's affective participation. But looking closer at the semiotics and other storytelling elements enables us to see that emotional effects are rarely dissociable from cognitive objectives. Izzy's introduction scene is a good example of this, and we have to be aware of this to study the other methods that make the spectator become active, on the affective and cognitive levels.
3) Involvement of the Spectator and Participation of the Story-Receiver
To establish definitely the link between the affective and the cognitive participation of the receiver, we should look closer to Roger Odin's Cinéma et Production de sens who analyses the "semio-linguistic" effects of cinema in the building of sense. Eco raises the question of the "rhetorical force of persuasion" of language in Sémiotique et philosophie du langage as more important than the scientific nature of a semio-linguistic theory. In a word, he brings up the problem of scientific reliability in interpretation and resolves it at the same time by saying that interpretation tends to be exact but can only be rigorous (tending to be exact). It seems that interpreting a film becomes an epistemological study questioning the spectator as well as the film itself. Before we analyse the cognitive participation of the receiver, we should look closely at the special relationship that takes place between the film and its spectator, which enables both emotions and understanding.
It is first necessary to recall that the story needs a teller, a source; be
it hidden or indiscernible as in cinema, the teller exists. "Both teller
and addressee are grammatically manifested in the message: 'I tell you that...'"
. Therefore, interpretation is not completely free, and the participation of
the interpreter has to be formulated as a co-operation. The work of art is characterised
by its "flexibility" that opens the door to several possible understandings
according to Eco, it "constitut[es] a flexible type of which many tokens
can be legitimately realized." Eco explains that "The Poetics of the
open Work" (1959) foreshadowed his theories of semiotics and raised the
problem of a supposed unlimited semiosis of the "open text" that made
of the work a "communicative strategy", which implied that the author
had envisaged the interpretation of his addressee. In a word, the author needs
to foresee the receptor while writing and the listener has to decipher the author's
intentions; one belongs to the future of the other and vice versa, and both
have to take into account the rather predictable speculations of the other half.
To clarify our point, we can refer to Smoke's last dialogue:
Paul is carefully listening to Auggie's tale. The former tells his story and at the end of it, both wear mysterious smiles. The riddle of their smiles rests in their duality: the smiles contain at the same time a question and an assertion: from the receiver's point of view, the question is "where do you want me to follow you?", as Paul knows that the story is not true even if presented as such by the teller (clues are delivered, such as the name of the "porn-thief" in Auggie's story, Goodwin, that corresponds by chance to the patronymic of the Creeper's sidekick who attacked Paul and whose photograph is on the first page of the paper Auggie is reading); on the other hand, the assertion "I understand you" that marks the listener's acceptance of the teller's rules. From the narrator's point of view, the question becomes "Do you follow me?" and the assertion "I trust you." The process is the same inside the story told, in which neither Granny Ethel nor Auggie is duped by each other's pretending, but both remain silent and play the game. Lastly, of course the situation can be considered as the analogy of the relation established between us spectators and the film: the informed spectator knows that the story told is in fact Paul Auster's Auggie Wren's Christmas Story, which is the text at the very origin of Wayne Wang's project to make Smoke, and even that everything started with the reading of a newspaper as we mentioned before. At the end of Smoke, the smile is communicated to the receiver, the message is crossing the boundaries of the diegesis to link the exterior worlds of the narrator and the spectator.
The assertion we used for the teller, "I trust you", is an essential element in storytelling, and it seals the importance of the participation of the receiver as a necessary feature. It is interesting to notice that the question of exchange between characters, who might reproduce the relation established between teller and addressee, in Smoke is often represented by financial transactions. Money is used as a pretext enabling, or justifying, contacts between characters. Rashid steals money from the Creeper, the bank-burglar who attacks Paul, and hides it in a paper bag in Paul's apartment. Then, Rashid messes up Auggie's "business venture" (a cigar sale) and gives him the "five thousand bucks". Eventually, Auggie hands the paper bag to Ruby. The transactions appear as material representation of the links forged by the characters. However; the paper bag containing the dollars is at once showing and hiding money. Money transactions do not illustrate the corruption of a consumerist society but are only used as metaphors of social exchange, this is the reason why money exists in words but remains invisible. Anyway, what is money but a social contract based on trust, a fiduciary symbol?
Even if the addressee is often just an abstraction for the storyteller, the latter needs to foresee and trust his addressee's reaction to his work. Eco raises the problems of the difference of backgrounds and skills between the two: "To make his text communicative, the author has to assume that the ensemble of codes he relies upon is the same as that shared by his possible reader." This is the reason why Eco proposes to establish a "Model Reader", whom he defines as "supposedly able to deal interpretatively with the expressions in the same way as the author deals generatively with them." We can transcribe and bring his/her characteristics into model receivers to decipher the communication steps that are at work when telling a tale. Storytellers may adopt different behaviours: their style (be it literary, cinematic, oral), their specialisation in certain specific topics (Eco illustrates with an extract of technical jargon of text semiotics), or even their explicit indications about who is susceptible to understand what is said are clues about what sort of receptors they presuppose. At first sight, Paul Auster's movies do not clearly enunciate any necessary specific condition for their spectators. However, we will see in the third part that implicitly, a certain knowledge of Auster's other works or of his favourite themes is required in order to enter a deeper level of participation. Many intertextual references, metalepses, links and parallels are to be drawn from this knowledge. But first of all, we need to point out that the tale does not only ask for model receivers but create their competence.
As we just reckoned, Auster's movies are what Eco calls "open" movies. He explains that he calls "closed text" the texts whose authors "have in mind an average addressee referred to a given social context." Indeed, the addressee's cultural, social or historical background is a primordial element in the study of the process of reception. Of course, several points can be considered as "closed" elements, but they remain details. The general schemes are definitely open, as we will see in the following paragraph. Here, only a deeper study would require specific knowledge. For instance, what would be understood by foreigners of the parody of Biblical reference in the discussion between Auggie and some local characters at the beginning of Smoke: Tommy: "They didn't have to do a thing, that's all I'm saying. The team was good, the best fucking team in baseball. But then they had to screw it up. (Pause) They traded their birthright for a mess of porridge. (Shakes his head) A mess of porridge." The first problem appearing is the basic understanding of this colloquial phrase that means in the context that the baseball "managers" got rid of a winning team for nothing. To that we should add a second issue, which is that American people inherit from a strong Biblical culture, and a foreigner might be less incline to get the religious allusion. Furthermore, the original Biblical sentence is "traded their birthright for a mess of pottage" and not "porridge". Insufficient knowledge would ruin the joke and impoverish the complexity of Tommy. Indeed, we can interpret the solemn way he pronounces the words in two opposite directions: either he intentionally makes a pun or he's ridiculed by the incorrectness of the quotation he uses; either he's cultivated or he pretends to be so. Finally, as we mentioned, and even if this illustration is not the most appropriate, a link could be established with Auster's other works in which are to be found many references to Scripture, to the myth of Babel, to Jonas and the whale, to the original sin, etc.
"If there is a "jouissance du texte" (Barthes, 1973), it cannot be aroused and implemented except by a text producing all the paths of its 'good' reading (no matter how many, no matter how much determined in advance)" , Eco says. If enjoying the work of art is sufficient to make of it an "open" work, we can easily accept that Auster's movies are open. The best example is with no doubt Lulu on the Bridge, which Auster describes as "a very emotional story, a story about deep and powerful feelings" and "not a puzzle, not some code to be cracked". Indeed, the quotation proves our point if we admit that an absolute understanding of the story is not required to enjoy it. The multiple levels of receiving it enhance the receiver's autonomy. However, one can wonder whether Auster is reliable or not here, because, doubtless, several themes that are broached are susceptible to be analysed; on the other hand, one cannot deny that the "addressee is bound to enter into an interplay of stimulus and response which depends on his unique capacity for sensitive reception of the piece" , as there is not one response. In fact, the work of art gains its aesthetic validity thanks to the multiplicity of the perspectives from which it can be viewed; the work of art is at once closed and open, at once a complete whole characterised by its uniqueness and a product generating an infinity of interpretations. This theory enjoins us to go further in the study of the attitude of the active participation of the receiver.
In In the Country of Last Things, Anna Blume sends a letter without knowing if it will come to the addressee: "I feel there is something to say, and if I don't quickly write it down, my head will burst. It doesn't matter if you read it." This sentence deals with two issues: on the one hand, the narrator has "something to say", therefore, however open the text may be, and however conscious it is for the author, the receiver is conditioned by the author's product and not completely free; on the other hand, the author is not sure that his work will find its original echo in the receiver's mind. The second aspect is really interesting to the extent that the author needs to believe, or at least needs to hope that someone will get his message. The poet's words, as Paul Auster describes in The Art of Hunger, reminds him of Cassandra's words. The beautiful daughter of Priam, endowed with prophetic powers by Apollo, was punished for her infidelity with the curse that her prophetic words are never to be believed. However, Cassandra still tries to warn her people, even fate cannot stop her words. Paul Celan compared poems to "bottles thrown in the sea": in general, works of art are bottles thrown by fearful authors to unknown receivers, but the analogy reveals that authors affirm their trust in the receivers at the same time as their fear as we mentioned before. The relation teller-addressee is ambiguous because if the author has to presuppose that his reader will receive (understand 'participate to') his message, the reader will also have to guess what the author meant when he told his tale... And here, we could invert the theory, and postulate a model author as Eco does, but we do not really need to go that far to see that the teller requires an active participation of the receiver.
4) Cognitive Participation
Gardies insists on the necessary co-operation of the receiver and compares the cinema to a lazy machine, echoing Eco. In the same fashion, Gaudreault and Jost underline the importance of an active reception and illustrate their point with Roger Odin's theory on the topic:
Roger Odin (...) a développé une approche "sémio-pragmatique". Selon celle-ci, le spectateur et ses divers affects doivent être pris en considération en tout premier lieu, dans la mesure où " la réalisation et la lecture des films " sont des " pratique sociales programmées " (Odin, 1988 : 121). Pour Odin, le consommateur d'un récit cinématographique de fiction, qu'il appelle l' " actant lecteur ", est appelé à effectuer, de manière relativement impérative, un " faisceau de déterminations fictionnalisant " identifiables aux sept opérations que sont la figurativisation (reconnaissance des signes analogiques), la diégétisation (construction d'un monde), la narrativisation (production d'un récit), la monstration (désignation comme " réel " du monde montré), la croyance (corollaire du précédent), la mise en phase (homogénéisation de la narration grâce à la collusion des diverses instances) et la fictivisation (reconnaissance du statut fictionnalisant de l'énonciateur).
Odin helps us understand the different cinematic processes that implicate the
receiver. We will briefly develop them in order to see how these steps are part
of a necessary teller-receiver scheme in movies and more generally in the act
First, figurativisation is the link that will enable a cognitive connection between the emitter and the receiver, whose role will be acknowledging what the film proposes as signs, be them auditory or visual. Then comes for the receiver the primordial diegetisation, the construction of a new world thanks to narrativisation, and at the same time the acceptance of what he is given as a fully-fledged world, ruled by its own laws, which Odin called monstration and belief. Lulu on the Bridge illustrates the processes very well: we are shown a universe very close to our traditional environment but we need to accept that stones can fly. In the same fashion, credits at the beginning of science fiction movies announce that in '2567, a galactic war has destroyed the earth except a few people lost on an unknown planet.' The spectator needs to believe, or pretend believing the information are true or he will not appreciate the story. It is up to the monstrator to make believe, and it is surely done in Lulu on the Bridge by the gloomy atmosphere that precedes the finding of the stone and the astonishment of Izzy and Celia when they first discover the phenomenon. Here, each becomes the spectator's double in the film, and their mutual acceptance turns to be a sufficient guarantee for the spectator. Moreover, we face a good example of co-operation as, when Celia is rapidly convinced of the reality of what she sees, Izzy remains sceptical. It is as if the two possible receiving attitudes found their echoes inside the diegesis. The last two steps are first homogenisation, which enables the different components of a story to be considered as part of a whole project thanks to rhetoric, rhythmic or narrative elements, and second fictivisation that is the distance established between the story and the receiver to make the latter realise that what he is given is only fiction. As we said, the receiver pretends he believes that stones can fly but hopefully knows that the laws of gravity do not allow such a dereliction.
Odin makes us perceive diegetisation's dual role. Indeed, the spectator is
here asked to enter the character's universe without forgetting that he belongs
himself to the real world (independent of any link with cinema), to what Souriau
calls "réalité afilmique" . Christian Metz insists on
the duality of the receiver's participation in La grande syntagmatique du film
narratif. Metz highlights the complex role of the spectator whom he warns about
what films expect from him. Indeed, the spectator must work with both signifier
and signified, therefore at the same time accepting and refusing to be led by
the story told. "Le signifié proche de chaque segment filmique est
uni à ce segment lui-même par d'indissolubles liens de réciprocité
sémiologique (principe de la commutation) et seul un va-et-vient méthodique
de l'instance filmique (signifiante) à l'instance diégétique
(signifiée) nous donne quelque chance de découper un jour le film
de façon point trop contestable."
The bridge linking homodiegetic and heterodiegetic worlds is made visible by rhetorical figures, in which the author directly addresses his receiver but remains hidden by the homogeneity of the diegesis. The unsaid, insinuations, connotations, metaphors, references to other works, etc. only exist when understood, when interpreted, therefore when the receiver is active. All these figures act metaleptically, creating a special relationship between the teller and the addressee and enabling what Odin calls fictivisation without breaking the diegesis's harmony. Illustrating this point would be rather useless as every shot proves to be relevant here, nevertheless, we can list up some of the possibilities offered by cinema to create that bridge through the study of a peculiar scene.
Illustrating Cognitive Participation
The chosen scene is Izzy's kidnapping by Dr. Van Horn's henchmen in Lulu on
the Bridge. Celia just left Izzy to go to Dublin where she is engaged to perform
Lulu's role. The scene is primordial as it just follows the last time the lovers
are together. At that point, Izzy steps into his apartment, shuts the door and
turns on the light. He looks around to take up his bearings. He has not been
there in weeks as he was spending his time with his new lover. Suddenly, as
if out of nowhere, three thugs (one German, one Russian, on Chinese) burst into
the apartment. Before Izzy can utter a word, the German thug grabs him from
behind and the Chinese punches him in the stomach. Few words are spoken. They
obviously know Izzy, as they call him Mr. Maurer, but the latter does not seem
to know them. He soon understands that they come for the stone he found on a
dead man's body few weeks before. They ask him who he is, what he wants and
why he killed Stanley Mar. Cut. The next shots show an Aer lingus plane landing
at Dublin airport. Another cut. Izzy, badly beaten, wakes up to find himself
lying on a cement floor in a basement room somewhere. A thick metal door and
opaque windows underline the feeling of confinement.
The cognitive activity of the receiver shows its full extent here because the film does not deliver clear messages to his spectator but raises questions to which no answer is given. As we said, several stylistic devices are to be found, we will list them before trying to interpret them. A formerly bad man comes back to the place where he lived before he turned good thanks to love. He is beaten by three unknown thugs for no obvious reason. Basically, this is the story. Dialogues are brief, authoritarian but not violent, which is relevant in such a situation. They give a rather satisfactory explanation of the presence of the thugs, but what is more noticeable is the three men's strong accents. The performance of the actors is not extremely interesting: the scene acts as a transition as it is very rapid, we can classify it as a function scene according to Barthes. The filming also remains rather classical: the scene starts with a full shot when Izzy enters his apartment, he moves toward the camera while the door opens behind him, introducing the thugs; once beaten for the second time, Izzy lies on the floor: high-angle shot on him, first close-shot then close-up on his face to highlight his feeling of oppression; on top of that, the thugs are filmed from below. When Izzy leaves Celia, a piano begins to play (heterodiegetically) and the music fades out and stops as he enters his flat. The editing is again conventional, proper to action scenes: flash shots and cuts (about ten in less than one minute) gives a rapid and brutal rhythm to the passage.
We can now interpret the scene in different ways in the light of these elements: if we want to make sense of the scene, we must accept that the stolen stone is the motive of the kidnapping; on the other hand, metaphorically, we can guess that Izzy is caught back by his past, hence the beating, as though Celia was his moral caution: once gone away to Dublin, Izzy becomes defenceless. All of a sudden, the stone, which symbolised love until this scene, appears as the cause of his loss. From now on, we spectators begin to perceive the ambiguity of the stone. Therefore, the kidnapping scene is a kind of linchpin for the story: the stone is here definitely set in the foreground. The stone is dual, on the one hand it provokes man's death (Stanley Mar), on the other hand, it inspires love. The stone is obviously subject to passionate reactions with no rational reason. The question remains, what is it? The clues given are really obscure at that point of the film, but we should wonder why the thugs are three and why they are only characterised by their strong foreign accents. Their accents recall the moment when Izzy opened the boxes (which were stacked together as Russian dolls) that contained the stone; indeed, all through this shot, a vague murmuring of different voices can be heard, male and female alike, each one speaking a different language and inside the boxes, the stone is protected by some of the strips of shredded newspapers written in different languages: Russian, Chinese, Hebrew, Arabic...
We can imagine that the stone is a piece from the Tower of Babel: Auster treats of the Tower of Babel in City of Glass. He explains that to Stillman, one of his writer-characters, the myth of Babel is "an exact recapitulation of what happened in the Garden - only expanded, made general in its significance for all mankind." We can interpret this myth as the loss of unity between men because of language's diversity , and as the loss of unity inside man because of the discrepancy created between thoughts and words. Without going too far in this direction, we see that rhetoric figures and intertextuality play a great role in cognitive participation. Defining the stone at that point of the study would be difficult, however, we can raise hypotheses on what it represents. The stone is the embodiment of Izzy's dual soul, at once good and bad, definitely human.
To continue the analogy, what is also striking is Izzy's lack of reaction as well as the role he plays in his confinement: he closes the door of the black car that takes Celia to the airport, he closes the door of his block of flats and he closes the door of his apartment before he is attacked. The metaphor of the door is thus clear: Izzy is the only one responsible for his confinement. It also appears proleptic as the camera zooms out of a close up on the black door of the room where Izzy is hold prisoner after the scene. The sequel of the story (the discussion with Van Horn) will prove that Izzy is indeed the only one to blame for the mess his life has been. After having opened the box of his soul, he leaves Celia who keeps the stone, closes doors and returns to his former life. The analogy is highlighted by the filming as the high angle shot on Izzy's face recalls the scene when he is shot while playing the saxophone, thus recalling his former life (we could also analyse this sequence as the man who shoots Izzy shouts "We're going to burn in hell, Nancy! You and me and God - all of us together.", which certainly refers to trinity, lost unity, God's wrath, etc.). Furthermore, we learn at the end that the whole story has been dreamed up by Izzy dying. Therefore, we can understand his dream as the metaphor of his redemption: he falls in love and for once in his life, he does not give up and protects someone else than himself. Dr. Van Horn tests him, but Izzy finds in love the strength to overcome himself. The scene we study may be the temptation episode with mermaids of his past willing him back.
In parallel, Lulu is Izzy's creation. Without knowing it, he finds in himself the strength to be a good man. Once more, the quest for unity hangs over with Plato's androgyny myth. At the end of Lulu on the bridge, Izzy is a new man, not another man. He is finally man. Auster gives us clues in his interview with Rebecca Prime: "Izzy is a man who's led a less than noble life. He's selfish, quick tempered, incapable of loving anyone. (...) Then he's shot, and in the delirium of his final moments, he conjures up a great and overpowering love. In doing so, he reinvents who he is, becomes better..." and "You find your essence only in relation to the others. That's the great paradox. You don't take hold of yourself until you're really willing to give it away. In other words, you don't become who you are until you're capable of loving someone else."
We will not go much further in the interpretation of the passage as Paul Auster's works can be considered irreducible to exhaustive analysis because of their peculiar construction. This is why we need to raise the question of meaning in the reception of a story. Is the quest for a solution to the problems brought up by the film a valid inquiry? We shall answer this before studying the similarities and differences that occur in Auster's novelistic and cinematic storytelling.
5) The Question of Meaning.
There is no attempt at creating order to bring the chaos of the world "beyond
understanding" as Auster affirms in The Art of Hunger. Beckett indicated
in an interview that the task of the artist now was "to admit the chaos"
and "to find a new form that accommodates the mess" . This echoes
Auster's interest in chance, a recurring theme that one can find in all his
works and that may testify the lack of landmarks omnipresent in his literary
or cinematic universe. Do we know why Stanley Mar had Celia's phone number in
his briefcase when Izzy found him dead? Chance is Auster's contingency, the
uncertainties of the music of chance become necessary mechanisms in his works.
The lucky rescuing of Paul by Rashid illustrates it very well: as Rashid is
about to leave the guy he just saved, Paul grabs hold of Rashid's arm and says
"It's a law of the universe. If I let you walk away, the moon will spin
out of orbit... pestilence will reign over the city for a hundred years. (...)
You have to let me do something for you to put the scales in balance."
Chance is a whimsical and unpredictable goddess, misused in "bad" literature as a device that allows the writer freedom for endless combinations. However, in Auster's fiction, chance is a way of shattering the power of reason and logic as it occurs in the narrative. "The unexpected occurs with almost numbing regularity in our lives" could be his message in the three films. In Smoke, every character appears in the others' lives as if by magic, and ends up sharing a similar experience of life. Life is at least as fragmented as Blue in the Face is divided, so much that each time we see a connection between two fragments, we are tempted to look for a meaning, to look beyond the facts .
Quinn comments in City of glass : "nothing is real except the chance"
. Is this the message Auster wants to deliver? Is it useless to look for an
answer? Reading Auster is often said to be frustrating, simply because there
is no "because". It is the same with his films. First because he wants
to allow the spectator to make his/her own interpretation of the material given
(for instance, the stone in Lulu on the Bridge). But above all, because he does
not believe in a universal meaning. Actually, he does believe in something but
also believes that no word can express this something.
We can suppose that we are facing Auster's idea of literature here, as he considers it to be the only medium able to tell the ineffable. To Auster, stories have to act analogically, stories act as parables, more or less following Plato's idea of myths as the only keys to the unintelligible world of ideas. Telling stories is not on the side of mimesis to Auster, telling stories is the only way to reach the truth. We should call upon Deleuze to specify this point. Deleuze asserts in Critique et Clinique that writing is not reaching a finite form but is on the side of the unfinished, of the incompletion: "Ecrire est une affaire de devenir, toujours inachevé, toujours en train de se faire, et qui déborde toute matière vivable ou vécue." He adds: "Devenir n'est pas atteindre une forme (identification, imitation, Mimésis), mais trouver la zone de voisinage, d'indiscernabilité ou d'indifférenciation telle qu'on ne peut plus se distinguer d'une femme, d'un animal ou d'une molécule " If we look at Auster's works, it is obvious that his writing is that of the unfinished and certainly of the unfinishable (many characters just disappear, as Izzy or Celia do, at the end of his novels, they do not explicitly die: Jim Nashe, Anna Blume, Daniel Quinn...). We should recall that Izzy's quest for the unreachable unity of his self is metaphorically expressed by references to the myth of Babel, which itself often echoes the attempt of the writer at creating a work of art, therefore unique and complete.
Auster tells us that to him, the important is not what is said but how it is said. He specifies in Ground Work that the unsaid is often certainly more powerful than the explicit, especially while nothing is to be clearly understood:
It is sometimes necessary not to name the thing we are talking about. The invisible God of the Hebrews, for example, had an unpronounceable name, and each of the ninety-nine names tradition ascribes to this God was in fact nothing more than a way of acknowledging that-which-cannot-be-spoken, that-which-cannot-be-seen, and that-which-cannot-be-understood.
Each answer seems to be personal in Auster's world. Following the same idea,
each character has his own route to meaning: Rashid searches for his father,
Paul for inspiration, Dot wants to go to Las Vegas
Chance is blamed when
some phenomena happen beyond our control, but Auster does certainly not use
chance to escape responsibility, as Baudrillard claimed about chance in literature.
By using chance as a recurring device, Auster challenges what Lyotard calls
one of the great legitimising myths of narrative archetypes: the speculative
unity of knowledge. The breaking up of this snug unity is achieved by the presentation
of chance as the only thing it is rational to expect, and its effect is to make
the listener active, to shake up his cosiness.
Even though cinema is a visual art, which thus requires sensitivity, these three films are not only aesthetic, but definitely raise several questions. "The question is the story itself" Auster declares in City of Glass, "and what does it mean is not for the story to tell." Auster seems to let the listener choose, because he thinks he will not be able "to say one truly important thing" ; because what is connected to feelings is personal; but especially because what stories are supposed to deliver is "the unrepresentable" , the secret of life. Besides, he specifies that he will never say what the stone is because he does not even know, neither want to know, what it is: "I don't really understand what the stone is. (...) Each person finds his or her own meaning in it... (...) It becomes more powerful this way, I think. The less fixed, the more pregnant with possibilities..." This refusal to try and answer any question echoes Edmond Jabès's ideas of artistic creation : "Il avait répondu à la question en posant une autre question et tout restait donc ouvert, inachevé, à recommencer."
We defined the lack of definitive meaning as a refusal to answer the world, but we need to clarify this incomplete definition thanks to Barthes's distinction between écrivain and écrivant. In Essais Critiques, Barthes insists on the idea that the writer's means (language) becomes his end, what makes of literature a "tautological activity".
...l'écrivain est un homme qui absorbe radicalement le pourquoi du monde dans un comment écrire. Et le miracle de cette activité narcissique ne cesse de provoquer ( ) une interrogation au monde : en s'enfermant dans le comment écrire, l'écrivain finit par retrouver la question ouverte par excellence : pourquoi le monde ? Quel est le sens de ces choses ? En somme, c'est au moment même où le travail de l'écrivain devient sa propre fin, qu'il retrouve un caractère médiateur : l'écrivain conçoit la littérature comme fin, le monde la lui renvoie comme moyen : et c'est dans cette déception infinie, que l'écrivain retrouve le monde, un monde étrange d'ailleurs, puisque la littérature le représente comme une question, jamais en définitive, comme une réponse.
The artist does not voluntarily refuse to deliver affirmations instead of questions
but art is definitely paradoxical in the sense that, at once, art says something
and says, nothing more nothing less. We could paraphrase Barthes to understand
the limitations of interpretation: the storyteller tells a story on the one
hand and just tells on the other hand . Susan Sontag sums us the interpretative
task in Against Interpretation: "The function of every criticism should
be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to
show what it means . She concludes her essay by asserting: "In place of
a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art."
Even if there is no answer brought by the storyteller, even if no truth emanates from the stories, one cannot deny that question marks are interspersed in the movies. Meaning has become the activity of listening, a matter of interpretation, as the text shifts away from the storyteller and becomes the interlocutor's food. We should therefore wonder, at least, if we agree with the fact that "the question is the story itself", what the questions raised by the films are in order to complete this work on storytelling in Paul Auster's movies.
We easily understand that simplifying Auster's works in an attempt at understanding them as questions to be answered would not make sense. Nonetheless, we need to examine the way movies treat stories and themes that are also to be found in his novels. First, we will study stories told by characters, thus told twice as characters are part of books or films. Then, we will look into specific aspects such as the representation of women or the omnipresence of smoke that are recurring elements in both movies and novels. This will hopefully enable us to draw parallels between the two media and let us perceive what led Auster to the choice of cinema to tell his stories.
PART III :
INTERFERENCE IN PAUL AUSTER'S WORKS
Auster leaned back on the sofa, smiled with a certain ironic pleasure, and
lit a cigarette.
The man was obviously enjoying himself, but the precise nature of that pleasure eluded Quinn.
We can assume that the use of cinema is not innocent for a novelist. What is cinema more inclined to express than novels? Analysing the cognitive and affective reception of the stories told in Auster's movies and writings will enable us to decipher the interests of using such or such medium. The multiple illustrations of interference between films and books will lead us to question the main differences and similarities existing between the two media. Does the story submit to the rules of the medium that transmits it? Does the medium abide by the necessities of the story? Suddenly, the initial problematic reappears: what is a story?
Our third part will question the dependence of a story on the medium that conveyes it. For instance, is it possible to say that Lulu on the Bridge is not a good film but that the story is good? In a word, is it really possible to establish a clear distinction between content and form? Our parallel study of the stories and themes to be found both in movies and novels will help us understand what remains of a story when its medium is left aside.
1) Treating the same Story
Our first task will consist of studying stories inside stories. The two stories
we chose to present are therefore told twice: on the one hand by the film or
the book, and on the other hand by a character (who therefore creates a diegetic
world inside the diegesis). The common characteristic of the Skier Tale and
Auggie Wren's Christmas Story is that they are to be found both in written and
Whereas cinema and written works are made in absentia, oral storytelling is made in praesentia, requiring no medium but the voice. The voice is a central theme in Auster's novels and certainly an important link between his written and cinematic productions. Paul Auster frequently introduces traditional storytellers in his works, characters using their voices to tell stories. Auster confesses in The Art of Hunger that "the greatest influence on [his] work has been fairy tales, the oral tradition of story-telling." Catherine Roger-Quarré insists on the different voices to be found in In the Country of Last Things. She notes that it is commonly acknowledged that oral language takes precedence over any other form of expression. To her, the voice is above all energy. We need to specify that if oral storytelling appears simpler than cinema and literature, we should be aware that it also obeys particular rules requiring great technique. As Paul flatters Auggie, a good storyteller needs to know how to push the "right buttons" at the right times.
Catherine Roger-Quarré begins with quoting Derrida: "Il est impliqué dans la structure même de la parole que le parleur s'entende." The principal difference with cinema or literature is that in oral storytelling, the medium is alive, conscious of his function: the teller is at the same time author and narrator. Derrida's sentence also implies that the voice is an instrument requiring a certain proximity, creating intimacy between teller and listener. Moreover, orality implies that the voice is accompanied by other sensations: the human presence and the closeness of the storyteller influence the reception of the story, all the senses are active and receptive. We will rapidly see in the chosen examples that the voice can play different roles in the matter of storytelling when used in cinema or in literature.
The Skier Tale
It is morning. Rashid is back in Paul's apartment after the latter kindly threw him out a few days before. Rashid is preparing a pot of coffee in the kitchenette. Paul stumbles out of the bathroom, wiping his face with a towel. He approaches the table. - The first version of the scenario reveals that Rashid is normally to question Paul about the book he is writing at the moment of the skier scene. But the latter is superstitious and refuses to tell him as he fears not being able to finish it if he does so. However, he accepts telling "what gave [him] the idea for it", pretending it is a true story. - The final version of Smoke does not really introduce the skier tale. It is breakfast, Rashid is sitting in front of Paul in the kitchen. Paul starts with a warning:
Paul: "All right. Listen carefully. (the camera slightly moves in for
a close-up of Paul's face) About twenty five years ago, a young man went skiing
alone in the Alps. There was an avalanche, the snow swallowed him up, and his
body was never recovered.
Rashid (off, mockingly): The end.
Paul: No, not the end. The beginning. (Pause) His son was just a little boy at the time, but the years passed, and when he grew up, he became a skier, too. One day last winter, he went out by himself for a run down the mountain. He gets halfway to the bottom and then stops to eat his lunch next to a big rock. Just as he's unwrapping his cheese sandwich, he looks down and sees a body frozen in the ice - right there, at his feet. He bends down to take a closer look, and suddenly he feels that he's looking into a mirror, that he's looking at himself. There he is - dead - and the body is perfectly intact, sealed away in a block of ice - like someone preserved in suspended animation. He gets down on all fours, looks right into the dead man's face, and realises he's looking at his father.
Cut to Rashid's face. We see him listening intently.
Paul (off): And the strange thing is that the father is younger than the son is now. The boy has become a man, and it turns out that he's older than his own father.
The camera holds on Rashid's face. After a moment:
Paul (off): So what are you going to do today?
Strangely enough, the same story is to be found in Ghosts, second opus of the New York Trilogy. This novel is the remake of an earlier play called Blackouts that Auster wrote under the pseudonym of Paul Benjamin. Basically, Ghosts is the story of Blue. Blue has been hired by White to spy on Black. From the window of his rented room, Blue watches Black in his room across the street. But Black is staring out of his window. Who is watching whom? We learn later that we readers are as fouled as Blue because the manipulated characters are not the ones we think of. Blue is thus alone in his room, watching at a silent immobile Black. The situation is favourable to introspection, and Blue is led to think about his own life, and especially about his father:
Blue thinks of this now as he makes his way across the river, watching Black ahead of him and remembering his father and his boyhood out in Gravesend. The old man was a cop, later a detective at the 77th precinct, and life would have been good, Blue thinks, if it hadn't been for the Russo Case and the bullet that went through his father's brain in 1927. Twenty years ago, he says to himself, suddenly appalled by the time that has passed, wondering if there is a heaven, and if so whether or not he will get to see his father again after he dies. He remembers a story from one of the endless magazines he has read this week, a new monthly called Stranger than Fiction, and it seems somehow to follow from all the other thoughts that have just come to him. Somewhere, in the French Alps, he recalls, a man was lost skiing twenty or twenty five years ago, swallowed up by an avalanche and his body was never recovered. His son, who was a little boy at the time, grew up and also became a skier. One day in the past year he went skiing, not far from the spot where his father was lost - although he did not know this. Through the minute and persistent displacements of the ice over the decades since his father's death the terrain was now completely different from what it had been. All alone there in the mountains, miles away from any other human being, the son chanced up upon a body in the ice - a dead body, perfectly intact, as though preserved in suspended animation. Needless to say, the young man stopped to examine it, and as he bent down and looked at the face of the corpse, he had the distinct and terrifying impression that he was looking at himself. Trembling with fear, as the article put it, he inspected the body more closely, all sealed away as it was in the ice, like someone on the other side of a thick window, and saw that it was his father. The dead man was still young, even younger than his son was now, and there was something awesome about it, Blue felt, something so odd and terrible about being older than your own father, that he actually had to fight back tears as he read the article.
This echoes a scene from Le Premier Homme by Camus, which treats of the strange
feeling of being older than what existed before you, even better, what created
you, for that time logic (chronology) guarantees that what comes first is older
than what comes afterwards: "Quarante ans après, Jacques, l'enfant
devenu homme, se rend à St Brieuc sur la tombe de son père, mort
à la bataille de la Marne, pour faire plaisir à sa mère.
Laideur du paysage. D'abord indifférent, il s'aperçoit avec stupeur
qu'il est lui-même plus âgé que son père ne l'a jamais
) Ce sol était jonché d'enfants qui
avaient été les pères d'hommes grisonnants." What
Camus means is that every man is the first man once he becomes older than his
father. The loss of the father appears to be the step that enables a transformation
from child to man.
The theme of the lost father is typically Austerian. We find traces of it in most of his novels, and especially in The Invention of Solitude in which he tries to catch up the years he did not spend with his dead father. The vanity of the experience is obvious even before the writer starts the first line of the book, but the result does not seem as important as the quest. Every novel since The Invention of Solitude, since Auster's father decease, might be interpreted as a catharsis in which the hero sees potential fathers in male figures: Effing and Solomon for Marco in Moon Palace, Master Yehudi for Walt in Mr Vertigo, Paul for Rashid in Smoke...
In this quest we may find the epitome of the difficult relation established between the author and his work. Indeed, every writer has necessarily been a reader and the fact that he draws inspiration from his readings makes of him the former writers' heir, makes of them his ancestors, his fathers. The skier tale may also allegorically refer to America's young age and quest for personal cultural identity in relation to the old continents: briefly, we can draw a parallel with Lulu on the Bridge as we notice that the whispered polyphony to be heard when opening the stone box is made of languages (Russian, Chinese, Hebrew...) coming from the Old World.
We can assume that the loss of the father is symptomatic of the loss of identity. The landmarks that bound the self to the past are broken. Once more, the formerly possible unity is lost and replaced by an endless quest. Here, we encounter many mythologies associating the original loss of unity to the incapacity of making sense of the world and of the self: we already mentioned Babel, but we can also refer to Plato's androgyny myth. Many Austerian characters have lost their halves, such as David Zimmer whose wife Helen (the name of Paul Benjamin's wife in Smoke) disappeared in a plane crash. Very often, the loss of happiness, of the couple as unity, acts as a springboard for the story. However, paradoxically, losing one's father is a necessary step in the construction of one's identity in Auster's works (at least, it enables the construction of the story). Auster has always been interested in biographies, and especially in the years of youth: he highlights the years of development, the struggle to decipher one's own chaos, the path one chooses to become himself. To put it in a word, the death of the father is the release mechanism of the quest for identity, both origin and end of the quest.
The interesting part of the skier tale is that he finds out that his father is younger than him at the moment he looks through the ice. Our former hypotheses shall therefore be differently enlightened: suddenly, the father occupies the presupposed place of the child. The father learns from the child as he is younger. The story explores the problems of memory. Telling stories becomes a problem of memory. We should quote Martine Chard-Hutchinson who writes about The Invention of Solitude that the book is more devoted to the self than to the father:
le livre est une mise en scène de soi et de l'autre, qui repose sur les jeux de miroirs et de renversements, au point que paternité et filialité, ou leur corollaire philosophique identité et altérité, ne sont envisageables que dans une perspective de complémentarité voire de fusion. L'ouvrage de Paul Ricoeur Soi-même comme un autre sous-tend au plan théorique l'analyse de ces fluctuations qui suggèrent la mouvance de l'entre-deux, désigné ici comme l'obscur espace de liaison dans 'cet épisode de retrouvailles' (I. S. B., p 204) où père et fils doivent se retrouver, je veux parler du ventre de la baleine : 'C'était l'utérus, le ventre de la baleine, le lieu originel de l'imagination' (p 142). Espace de réunion aussi de Paul Auster avec ses pères littéraires ; ici c'est bien entendu l'ombre de Melville qui plane sur les entrelacs de l'origine et de l'imaginaire.
The question is that of originality. The word's etymology helps us understand
why, and especially from an artistic point of view: being original means exceeding
the origin, surpassing one's creator and eventually becoming creator.
In Auster's works, rebuilding a family is often linked to rebuilding a country. In the search for his father, Rashid desperately wants to find his roots, to fill the gaps of his life. Like Rashid, America has no real father ("The Founding Fathers"), it is an invented country with no real culture, no real past, "it has been founded" . It is no coincidence if the three films are based in New York (and Blue in the Face is entirely devoted to Brooklyn residents). François Gavillon says about Auster's writings that " parallèlement aux trajectoires des héros, apparaît en filigrane un réquisitoire contre une nation qui a perdu son chemin, une Amérique dévoyée. " This idea echoes Peter Aaron's assertion in Leviathan who claims that "America has lost the north." Identity is not given to the characters, the process of becoming oneself is the matter of everybody in a country that lacks history. So powerful, however so young, America produces little adults who have no adolescence.
Smoke is the most relevant example of the ceaseless quest. Every story has to do with paternity, the three main characters are fathers and sons to each other. When Rashid pretends to be Paul's father (on Paul's birthday in the bookstore), he must refer to the moment he saved his life, he gave him a life. On the other hand, the relationship is built up in both directions. Auster insists on the fact that to be a father means giving as well as receiving. Paul, who had lost his pregnant wife, becomes the son of a teenager and of a tobacconist as well as their father. Thus, the three of them can pretend filling their lack of identity for a moment: the orphan becomes father and the diminished father becomes child. It has come full circle, in the wrong way. Following the same idea, we learn that most characters' lives are punctuated with dark moments which still haunt them: Felicity embodies Auggie's and Ruby's former errors, Rashid is here to recall his past to his absent father, Izzy's ex-wife, Hannah, represents Izzy's (hardly conclusive) attempt at love in his former life...
It is to this extent that we can understand the skier parable: the snow-covered father has been an absent father (as Auggie or Cyrus). He is dead but his image remains visible, as Solomon Barber lying in his grave in Moon Palace. Here, the father appears as a mirror of the self: the skier "had the distinct and terrifying impression that he was looking at himself." However, the son is now older than his father; it is as if he was his father and more than him, as if he was the sum of his father plus himself. The image of the father calls him to go farther than what has been done in the past. Paradoxically, the image of the father is encouraging as well as challenging the son. It reflects the unconscious necessity that one feels to please one's father and show off, and at the same time to overcome him. The image of the father mirrors the unpleasant feeling one experiences when he realises that his father is not infallible, that his own son can be older than him.
Eventually, we cannot avoid noticing that looking at the dead father is not innocent for a Jew. The memory of the Holocaust as memory of the unspeakable haunts Auster. Memory is described as a space in which events happen for the second time, as a chance to speak out what belongs to past and will be forgotten if not said. Language against time, this is Auster's challenge in The Invention of Solitude.
The son tries to rise his father from the dead thanks to words, as young Stillman is obliged to content old Stillman by re-inventing a language in City of Glass, which evokes Aeneas bearing Anchises on his back from the ruins of Troy. 'Young Auster' must find the words to fill the "impenetrable space in the block of time" that is 'old Auster'. Stillman senior performs a language experiment on his offspring: he wants to implement God's language by denying his son the human language. It is the word of the father that the child speaks in the end. However, the father's experiment fails as it creates a puppet with no identity calling himself "Peter Nobody". Here the theme of affiliation shows its extreme complexity: the father appears as origin and end of the creative attempt, as we already mentioned.
We easily discover the parallel of the story with Rashid's relation to his father. Paul knows the teenager's plan to find back Cyrus ans warns him that he should not judge his father too quickly. On the other hand, the link between the skier tale and Blue is less clear. Surely there is the question of creation as we mentioned: indeed, is it the writer/watcher who makes the object seen exist, or is it the object seen that makes of the watcher a subject? Our former interpretations are to be more or less qualified depending on whether the story is drawn from the film or the novel, but both strike the same chords.
The fact that both are presented as stories told by a narrator belonging to
the diegesis engenders more similarities than differences in the processes of
storytelling. The main discrepancy between the movie and the novel lies in the
rhetoric means used to catch the receiver's attention. On the one hand, the
camera moves in for a close-up to focus on Paul inviting his listener to "listen
carefully", giving the spectator the impression that he/she takes Rashid's
place, that the story is directly told to him/her with no intermediary. On the
other hand, the novel's passage requires a longer introduction, a sort of exordium
that enables the reader to understand that the teller is about to unveil some
important element to him, as it follows the revelation of his father's death.
If both media call for deep involvement, we can notice that the required participation is maybe more emotional in the novel that in the film. As we said, images, sounds and reception conditions of cinema are more inclined to emphasise the spectator's affects than reading does. Therefore, to render at once the cognitive and affective implications of the parable, the author and the narrator share the work: in Smoke Paul insists on the astonishing, "strange" side of the story he tells, without explicitly referring to Rashid, when the camera chooses to show the pensive teenager, deeply concerned as he is searching for the father who abandoned him. In Ghosts, on the contrary, Blue links his personal life to the skier story, having "to fight back tears as he read the article." If the voice creates connivance between the characters in the film, it appears as a link between the character and the reader in the novel. There is a (fake) abstraction of the author. The presence of the voice make us readers enter Blue's head, as if we heard his conscious.
The skier parable is interesting in itself even if we cannot draw many differences from it as it turns out that the same scheme is used in both media: the 'told teller telling'. We learn from this precise parable that Auster's work is here, as often, a reflection on the act of storytelling. We cannot describe it as a proper study of storytelling but the mise en abyme indisputably creates a reflection, re-flectere meaning literally 'mirroring one's image'. We should also notice that, paradoxically, stories are told when words are not able to express what is to be said, what is inexpressible. This last remark appears as a clue that could enable us to find links between storytelling and art, and especially between storytelling and literature. Setting characters telling stories is a way of expressing implicitly their will to put words on the unspeakable. "Just because a story is told "realistically" doesn't make it realistic. And just because a story is told fancifully doesn't make it far-fetched. In the end, metaphor might be the best way of getting the truth."
The complex relation between truth and storytelling is the topic broached in the story we will now study.
Auggie Wren's Christmas Story
"Effing told it so well, with such palpable sincerity, that I simply let myself go along with it, refusing to question whether these things had happened or not."
We will now study another story, which certainly proves even more relevant than the Skier Tale as it was first written by Auster as a short story, then told by Auggie and finally shot as a silent black and white scene of Smoke. Auggie Wren's Christmas Story is narrated by three different media.
Auggie Wren's Christmas Story is at the origin of Smoke, as we mentioned in the introduction. Paul Auster published the short story in the New York Times in 1990. The narrator, who remains nameless but strangely resembles Paul Auster, warns us at the very beginning that the story is true. Except for the name of its main character, the story is as Auggie told him. Auggie is the narrator's tobacconist, just a "strange little man who wore a hooded blue shirt and sold [him] cigarettes..." One day, the narrator is asked by the New York Times to write a Christmas tale. In despair to find something to write, he is guaranteed "the best Christmas story [he] ever heard" by Auggie: a kid comes in his shop to steal things, Auggie fails to catch him but finds the wallet he dropped while running away. He keeps the wallet a long time. Finally, at Christmas time, he decides to return the wallet in person to the boy.
"I finally get to the apartment I'm looking for and ring the bell. Nothing
happens. I assume no one's there, but I try again just to make sure. I wait
a little longer, and just when I'm about to give up, I hear someone shuffling
to the door. An old woman's voice asks who's there, and I say I'm looking for
Robert Goodwin. 'Is that you, Robert?' the old woman says, and then she undoes
about fifteen locks and opens the door.
"She has to be at least eighty, maybe ninety years old, and the first thing I notice about her is that she's blind. 'I'd knew you'd come, Robert,' she says. 'I knew you wouldn't forget your Granny Ethel on Christmas.' And then she opens her arms as if she's about to hug me.
"I didn't have much time to think, you understand. I had to say something real fast, and before I knew what was happening, I could hear the words coming out of my mouth. 'That's right, Granny Ethel,' I said. 'I came back to see you on Christmas.' Don't ask me why I did it. I don't have any idea. Maybe I didn't want to disappoint her or something, I don't know. It just came out that way, and then this old woman was suddenly hugging me there in front of the door, and I was hugging her back.
Then, Auggie enters the house and pretends to be Robert Goodwin. He adds that the woman knew that he was not her grandson but pretended believing him and the stories he told her, always smiling at him and nodding her head. They eat chicken, drink wine, and when he goes to the bathroom after dinner, he discovers a pile of brand new cameras and takes one for himself. Returning to the living room, he finds Granny Ethel asleep, snoring and decides to leave after washing the dishes. This is the way Auggie explains how he started taking pictures of the same place every morning at precisely seven o'clock in an attempt at giving material existence to time.
The second time we are told the story is at the end of Smoke. Auggie is having dinner with Paul. He tells him the Christmas story as he promised. There is no need to rewrite the monologue as the content is exactly the same as in the text. No detail is missing, most of the time, entire phrases are exactly identical. The difference is that we are given to hear the story and to see the teller. At first, Wang and Auster had planned to punctuate the narrative with black and white footage illustrating what a voice-over was saying, but they decided that it would work better if they kept the two devices separate.
Eventually, we see the story as a silent black and white film: We see Auggie looking at a kid stealing skin magazines under his shirt.
This scene exactly duplicates the events shown earlier in scenes 2 and 3, with
one difference. The thief is now Roger Goodwin, the same person who beat up
Paul in scene 54, the same person whose picture Auggie just noticed in the newspaper.
We see Auggie chasing the kid, giving up and bending down for the wallet. He starts walking back to the store. (...)
We see Auggie examining the pictures. (...)
The housing projects in Boerum Hill. We see Auggie wandering alone among the buildings, bundled up against the cold. (...)
Shot of Auggie walking down a corridor in the housing projects; graffiti on the cinder-block walls. He stops in front of a door and pushes the buzzer. (...)
Shot of a very old black woman, Granny Ethel, opening the door. A rapturous, expectant smile is on her face. Even though the scene unfolds in silence, we see Auggie and Granny Ethel mouthing the dialogue that Auggie repeats to Paul...
This version might be more interesting as words are absent from it. As we noticed before, its interest is narrative more than informative, as we already know what the story is about. The dreamlike atmosphere of the scene is surely a nod to the spectator: here is your Christmas tale. This atmosphere is produced by the black and white first, and certainly by Tom Waits's song, but above all it is created by the silence emitted by the characters' mouths: Auster confesses being fascinated by silent-cinema that he considers cut from reality: "art de l'illusion, de l'hallucination" .
On the one hand, we have words. On the other hand, images. In the middle, we
see Auggie's face telling us spectators the Christmas tale. The three stories
are different, but treat of the same subject: truth. First, Auggie deliberately
lies to Granny Ethel, as she lies to him. Is a lie still a lie when both locutors
are aware of what truth is? Furthermore, as we mentioned, telling stories also
means lying in common usage. We can therefore wonder what truth refers to in
If we agree with Nietzsche, objectivity cannot exist in men's mouths: "There are no facts, only interpretation." Here truth is attached to reality, to what exists without human presence. Therefore, the activity of telling stories seems doomed from the start to be separate from truth since it duplicates the real, imitates reality. Susan Sontag recalls Plato's theory of art as mimesis in Against Interpretation, and since Plato considered "material things as themselves mimetic objects, imitations of transcendent forms or structures, even the best painting of a bed would be an 'imitation of imitation.'" We can wonder what truth has to do with storytelling if what we perceive of the world is false and if the lie is perpetuated by a story. Paradoxically, it is frequently said that the only answer to the question of truth is to be found in art. What is absolutely certain is that Auster mischievously explores the multiple forms of truth and plays with his addressee to invite him/her to do so.
Auggie Wren's Christmas Story's driving force seems to be chance. Auggie is
not conscious of the reason why he accepts to play the game, but he feels like
it: "Don't ask me why I did it. I don't have any idea". He feels he
does right even though it requires lying to a blind old lady, pretending to
be her flesh and blood and stealing from her. If we reduce the story to its
basic elements, Auggie abuses Granny Ethel. It seems that truth here is the
exact opposite of goodness, that what is commonly said to be true is here wrong,
whereas it is usually defined as a quality. The story binds the two concepts
as if necessarily complementary and appears to play with the prejudices one
can have about goodness and truth.
Very soon, we understand that the story echoes what happens between Auggie and Paul. Auggie lies to his friend, but his lie is the only help Paul expected. It is clear that lying is deeply anchored in storytelling, and that lying is good! Auggie specifies: "every time she asked me a question about how I was, I would lie to her. (...) I told her a hundred pretty stories, and she made like she believed every one of them." Paul says: "It was a good deed, Auggie. It was a nice thing you did for her." Auggie naively replies: "I lied to her, and then I stole from her. I don't know how you can call that a good deed." Paul answers : "You made her happy. And the camera was stolen anyway." In the same fashion, Rashid makes interesting remarks about Paul's novel: "Oh, by the way, I really liked your book. I think you're a hell of a good liar."
Goodness is not to be understood on a moral level here. What is to be good is the story, there is no religious consideration, no divine sentence. Goodness is equivalent to generosity in the story, it is the gift of the self to the other. But goodness also implies responsibility. After having been saved by Rashid, Paul says: "I owe you something (...) It's a law of the universe. If I let you walk away, the moon will spin out of orbit... pestilence will reign over the city for a hundred years." In Auggie Wren's Christmas Story, doing good is a way of affirming one's humanity: Auggie is at once irrational and responsible, he feels bound to the old woman with no obvious reason, as though it was his duty: "Maybe I didn't want to disappoint her or something, I don't know."
Paradoxically, goodness does not need to be pure disinterested generosity in Auster's universe; Auggie never consciously meant to be good. We find a similar scheme in In the Country of Last Things in which Samuel Farr, Anna's friend, pretends being a doctor to relieve people: "This isn't lying," Victoria answers to Anna. "It's a masquerade. You tell lies for selfish reasons, but in this case, we wouldn't be taking anything for ourselves. (...) As long as they think that Sam is a doctor, they'll believe in what he says." For Sam, helping others is also a way of helping himself: "It's better not having to be myself. (...) If I didn't have that other person to hide behind - the one who wears the white coat and the sympathetic look on his face - I don't think I could stand it." Catherine Roger-Quarré remarks that the self, constrained to be other, feels relieved of its ipséité thanks to the other. Here again, the question of identity is raised, and with it appears its corollary: the relation with others. We understand that if storytelling implicitly binds the teller to the addressee, it also links the teller to himself.
Auster believes that "stories happen only to those who are able to tell them" , as if telling transformed reality into truth, as if words turned a fortunate sequence of events into a logical necessary whole. The traditional acceptation of truth is no longer valid. If we learn in Timbuktu that "good stories [are] not necessarily true stories" , we are told that "as long as there's someone to believe it, there's no story that can't be true" in Auggie Wren's Christmas Story.
"The world enters through your eyes, but we cannot make sense of it until it descends into your mouth." Storytelling is no longer a question of telling the truth but of finding one's truth. Auster's works, and especially The Invention of Solitude, have always been considered cathartic. Telling stories appears to be a way of filling the gaps of a disjointed life, but however personal the quest is, it needs to be shared and expressed to be valid. Barthes explains that the disappearance of the author in the act of writing can make it become an outlet for one's passions: "Writing is that neutral composite oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing." Broaching the (typically Austerian) topic of solitude, Blanchot adds: "Ce qui parle en lui, c'est ce fait que, d'une manière ou d'une autre, il n'est pas lui-même, il n'est déjà plus personne. Le 'il' qui se substitue au 'je', telle est la solitude qui arrive à l'écrivain de par l'uvre."
However personal the message is for the author, it does not totally belong to him. If the author is commonly said to be the father of his work, the receiver of its content (text, movie) has to leave the author aside: "Le Texte, lui, se lit sans l'inscription du Père." Between the emitter and the addressee, there is the message, existing in its own right. The independence of the story is the guarantee of its truth. The story told is neither the teller's nor the listener's, but it seems to be given to both. Apparently, the author is at once creator and believer of his own story (as well as the receiver is believer and creator), as if the discrepancy between signifier and signified was more important than expected and planned by the author. Paul Auster underlines the notion of exchange in the act of telling. Auggie smiles at the end of Smoke: "Shit ; if you can't share your secrets with your friends, what kind of friend are you ?" To which Paul replies: "Exactly. Life wouldn't be worth living, would it ?" Auggie Wren's Christmas Story is nothing but a Christmas present offered to Granny Ethel, to the narrator and finally to the reader or spectator.
To conclude with the question of truth, Auggie Wren's Christmas Story tells us that the story is true because, once told, it no longer depends on its teller. Auster confesses that "in many ways, writing [In the Country of Last Things] was like taking dictation. I heard her voice talking to me." Similarly, Auggie feels an unconscious impulse that makes him speak in spite of his free will: "I could hear my voice..." The teller suffers from a split personality that, paradoxically, enables him to be himself. Hence Auster playing with his characters' identities, hence the endless mingling of reality and fiction (we mentioned it about Lulu on the Bridge), hence the introduction of his former pen name 'Paul Benjamin' in Smoke and the presence of 'Paul Auster' in The New York Trilogy. In City of Glass, Quinn says goodbye to his pseudonym William Wilson (reference to Poe's tale on duality) to assume Auster's identity. But he is fully able to tell his story under his real name in the red notebook when alone in the room of Stillman's apartment. Strangely enough, we defined storytelling as a moment of true generous exchange, and this definition seems incompatible with the writer's solitude we describe. This question is one more paradox Auster is pleased to highlight. To him, storytelling is truer than telling the truth simply because it is nicely told: why believe trite reality whereas one can lie so well?
The three forms of Auggie Wren's Christmas Story are different wrappings containing the same story, the best present ever. From a cognitive point of view, they are to be understood similarly as an allegory of true generosity, far from the traditional definition of the word (Auster calls Smoke an "undogmatic view of human behavior" ). To Auster, generosity exists in the gift of the self, of which storytelling is the best illustration. As we saw, stories require the connection between individuals, stories would not exist without sharing. 'Sharing', which paradoxically means 'splitting up' and 'having in common', takes its full sense here: telling stories is a complex process in which the two locutors are at once divided and unified by the story. To illustrate his point, we can notice that Paul Auster refused to make cynical films like Hollywood's movies:
"I've always thought of it as a comedy - but in the classical sense of the term, meaning that all the characters in the story are a little better at the end than they were at the beginning. Not to get too high-flown about it, but when you think about the differences between Shakespeare's comedies and tragedies, it's not so much in the material of the plays as how the conflicts are resolved. The same kinds of human problems exist in both.(...) With the comedies, everyone is still standing [at the end] and life goes on. That's how I think of Smoke."
Auster's first two movies are non-consensual comedies presenting storytellers
with true depth, people resorting to lies to affirm their humanity. Whatever
is to be understood, we can wonder how much the wrappings of Auggie Wren's Christmas
Story influence their receivers.
Cinema is the best illusion of reality: real people in real places are shown. The resemblance is even better than with theatre, which takes place in immobile stage settings. André Gardies argues that if cinema is not the perfect illusion, it remains the best one for the moment. However, Paul Auster does not choose to use the whole display cinema proposes to stick to reality: he sets Auggie talking with very few artifices (there is no cut, only a slow zoom on his face) and decides to show the scene with black and white footage. Moreover, as we noticed, we see mouths move but no sound is emitted. Once more, Auster mocks the conventions to lure the spectator and the medium. Telling and receiving stories amount to playing a game, to acting, to pretending that what is known as false is true, and the magic works when connivance is established.
Contrarily to the first two stories, the black and white footage does not exhibit its narrator. We know it is Auggie's story, but Auggie is neither to be seen nor heard. Finally, fiction takes back its rights, all the mediators that existed between the film and the spectator disappear. There is no equivalent to the text's indirect speech in the sequence, the teller is not included in the story. The dreamlike atmosphere we described tends to replace the reported speech. Whereas, in the first two Christmas tales we are given to imagine the scene, in the last sequence we are given to see it. It results from the change of material that the spectator is less active, that the relation between the film and the spectator is different from the relation established between the text and the reader.
Both media resort to the mise en abyme as stylistic and narrative devices, and because this device is self-reflexive, circular, the two media reflect themselves. In L'enjeu du texte pluriel, André Gardies quotes Lucien Dallenbäch who analyses the process of mise en abyme as the reflection that sends back to the utterance: "[cette] réflexion est un énoncé qui renvoie à l'énoncé, à l'énonciation ou au code du récit." To sum up, cinema will work with images and sound while literature will work with words. We can notice the difference in the pleasure both media takes in revealing itself. Whereas cinema is normally preoccupied with hiding its devices in order to make the spectator forget that it is only make-believe, this Christmas Story unveils the acceptance processes of the receiver. We can notice that both text and film joyfully play with their own devices to make the addressee feel that a good story is always true. The absence of colour, the way of shooting (the camera pans slowly through Granny Ethel's apartment, lingering momentarily on numerous objects), the absence of direct dialogue on the one hand, the various details (useless for the strict development of the story), the insertion of slang vocabulary, the orality of the speech on the other hand, partake of the pleasure of the filmmaker and of the writer. Whether or not it is similarly structured, whether or not it conveys the same elements, each story depends on the material that carries it.
Auster is conscious of the specific quality of cinema as a medium. He confesses having certain problems with its "two dimensionality (...). People think of movies as 'real,' but they're not. They're flat pictures projected against a wall, a simulacrum of reality..." According to him, the illusion of reality produced by films provoke a kind of laziness, a passiveness of the spectator whereas novels ask for active readers. This idea echoes R. Bataille, whom Roger Odin refers to in Le Langage Cinématographique et ses modèles, who established a 'cinegraphic grammar'. R Bataille compares the word with the shot as they are the smallest entities of the literary and cinematic linguistic systems . He notices similarities ("each word evokes an idea, each shot shows and idea") but is aware of the significant differences between the two: "The word is essentially intellectual (...). On the other hand, the shot is essentially material." "The word is reflection, the shot is sensation." Bataille takes into account the reception of the spectator. He knows that the shot can contain more than one idea, but the spectator is driven to perceive only one idea as it appears on the screen. These precisions, which we had already sensed through the 'skier tale', help us understand the main differences between stories told by cinema and literature: if most devices find their equivalent in both media, the reception is noticeably affective on the one hand and cognitive on the other hand.
2) Paul Auster and Women
Auster's central characters are always males. As we noticed with the 'skier
tale', the characters' stories seem to be born from the father. The son is bound
to the father, at once obstacle and necessity to his apprenticeship of life.
Women appear from time to time for brief but decisive moments in Auster's novels,
they are never set in the foreground (we will deal with In the Country of Last
Things separately because the novel remains marginal in Auster's works). We
will first rapidly question the stake of women's condition in Auster's writings,
essentially guided by Sophie Vallas's essay, entitled The Voice of a Woman Speaking
published in Les Oeuvres de Paul Auster by Annick Duperray. This study will
enable us to examine the treatment reserved for women in his movies.
Women are above all mothers in Auster's writings. The first feminine character appearing in his works is his mother in The Invention of Solitude. Whereas the father is omnipresent in the text, even if remaining invisible, the mother has no real shape according to Sophie Vallas . Mrs Auster exists as wife of Sam Auster and mother of Paul Auster, but she barely has a body. Even on photographs, she is visible because the arm of her husband gives her materiality: "Le corps paternel souligne, délimite celui, métonymique, de la mère, réduite à apparaître dans un rôle insignifiant et de pure figuration " Rapidly, Mrs Auster disappears from the book and the family is reduced to the relation between father and son. A similar scheme is to be noticed in Moon Palace: Marco's family is clearly divided in two: the maternal side is characterised by its absence. The grandmother, Elizabeth Barber, and her daughter, Emily, Marco's mother, are both described as lunatics under the influence of the moon. Once again, the feminine figures rapidly disappear. Sophie Vallas remarks that Emily and Elizabeth have no depth, no femininity, neither the body of a woman nor that of a mother. The two women did not desire the children Julian and Solomon Barber put inside them; following their examples, Kitty (Marco's girlfriend) refuses to be a mother.
In Auster's novels, women possess no proper identity, their contours are hazy, they are empty wombs. The text condemns them to Oedipeal clichés, especially in The Locked Room in which the narrator sleeps with Fanshawe's mother that he considered as his own mother. Women are reduced to procreators or seductresses, or both. They are often described in a few words, as is Virginia Stillman, whose first name is explicitly sexually connoted, in City of Glass: "The woman was thirty, perhaps thirty-five; average height at best; hips a touch wide, or else voluptuous, depending on your point of view; dark hair, dark eyes, and a look in those eyes that was at once self-contained and vaguely seductive. She wore a black dress and a very red lipstick." Virginia Stillman is presented as the stereotype of the seductive woman, she is the exact copy of the femme fatale. Very often, it is the image of the prostitute that is hidden behind the women's sex appeal. Sophie Vallas precises that the narrator's gaze never breaks the stereotype to make of the woman a real person, she remains image, symbol under his eyes: "Jamais le regard du narrateur ne s'attarde un tant soit peu, les surprenant, par exemple, dans une attitude privée, se permettant un gros plan inattendu."
The link between the mother and the prostitute is the womb, the place of solitude in which man is completely himself, the place in which Pinocchio can find his father, the link between the inside of the self and the world. Sophie Vallas defines women's bodies as 'anchorage points' on which Austerian protagonists can find solid landmarks. She illustrates this idea thanks to The Locked Room's narrator who says about Sophie Fanshawe: "This was the tiny hole between self and not-self, and for the first time in my life, I saw this nowhere as the exact centre of the world." This formula echoes Auster's last attempt at cinema: Siri Hustvedt and he wrote the scenario of The Centre of the World which was directed by Wang. Basically it is the story of a stripper and a rich young man in computers who go to Vegas for a week end during which she tries to convince him that woman's womb is the 'centre of the world'. This echoes Moon Palace in which the moon has a feminine, repetitive nature. It is the object of desire, the urge to capture, it is seen as a symbol of progress (but doomed to failure). It also, as Byrne says in the novel, helps define man's position on earth. The feminine body is objectivized, made into metaphor to serve the story of the male hero. The 'centre of the world' becomes the point where the subject is in between, trying in vain to join the self and the exterior world. It seems that the feminine figures are at once the beginning and the end of the Austerian hero's quest: he is born from women, he needs to return to women but is conscious of the promised failure of their communion. It recalls the famous womb/tomb, recurring paronomastic association in Auster's poetry. Whatever women represent, they are doomed to silence and reduced to the caricature of their natural attributes.
As regards the movies, we need to treat the dyptic separately from Lulu on the Bridge that gives a bigger part to a woman, as the title indicates. It is obvious that in Smoke, women are of secondary importance. Reading the first version of the script reveals that many cuts occurred, reducing considerably women's part. Aunt Em, Violet, Cyrus's wife and April only make cameo appearances serving the scenario. Violet (Auggie's girlfriend) and April (Paul's potential girlfriend) do not totally belong to the story, they are what Barthes called 'clues' because they do not make the story progress. They appear as proofs of the characters' sentimental lives, of their depth and true existence. Every woman is either mother or lover or both, as Felicity and Ruby. Ruby is said to have been once a seductive woman but her eye patch deprives her of the possibility to seduce again and she takes thus refuge in motherhood. On the opposite side, her daughter, Felicity, refuses to be mother (she aborts) in order to stay with her 'man'. The last mother figure in Smoke is Paul's dead wife, "four or five months pregnant" while killed. Even if stereotyped, women are not just pretexts serving the stories. Their absence is paradoxically omnipresent, and appears as an indelible scar in Auster's works. Auster proves unable to fill this gap, and the ceaseless flow of words trying to find the father back cannot hide the conscious failure of the story to give shape to women.
If Smoke treats women as Auster's other works, Blue In the Face presents many women playing significant roles. There is no central character in Blue in the Face, nor is there one story. For once, women are not speechless: Auggie shares the introduction of the movie arguing with a young woman, Dot disputes her husband's authority in order to go to Vegas, Violet is given a long passionate monologue in which she expresses her will to have Auggie with a strong Spanish accent ("You mess with Violetta, and Violetta fight back. I rip your guts Auggie. Like a tiger. Like a fucking tiger..." ), etc. Women exist in their own rights in this movie, and they are often the ones who speak till they are 'blue in the face'. Auster talks of Blue in the Face as Smoke's "opposite side of the same coin." It is as if they were given back the right to talk they had been deprived of in Smoke. We know that Auster participated in the writing of the sketches, but the film belongs above all to the actors' improvisations and to the editor. Auster admits that he did not believe really much in Blue in the Face until he saw the result of Wang's work. Besides, this movie is indisputably, among the three ones, the furthest from Auster's novelistic universe.
Finally, we need to study Celia's lot in Lulu on the Bridge because she plays
a central role in the story (her pseudonym appears in the title). We will draw
a parallel with In the Country of Last Things in which the hero is Anna Blume,
a young Jewish girl looking for her brother in an unnamed city (a nod to Hawthorne's
'City of Destruction').
Celia is a young actress obliged to work in a restaurant and to play in shampoo commercials to earn her living. She appears on screen after Izzy gets shot and before she knows him. The first words she utters are for Izzy: Pierre, owner of the restaurant, is reading the New York Post on which we can see "IZZY LIVES" on the front-page headline. Celia says: "He made it. I'm glad." The second time we see her, she still does not know Izzy. She pulls out of her bag the Katmandu CD. We see her struggling to open the plastic wrapper, and eventually, she is able to open the CD with her teeth. From then on, we understand that her fate is bound with Izzy's, which is confirmed by the music that softly links this scene with images of Izzy sitting in his living room. Even before knowing Izzy, we spectators are told that Celia does not exist without him.
Furthermore, Izzy and Celia's encounter is everything but realistic, notwithstanding the presence of the stone. Izzy calls the number he found on the dead body of Stanley Mar (who also possessed the stone). Celia lifts the receiver: "Hello... Who?... You're kidding... Believe it or not, I'm listening to your record now..." In two sentences, she admits that the singer she is listening to on her cd-player calls her. Then, in less than five minutes, they fall in love. Izzy tells her: "When I woke up this morning, I didn't know who you were. The way I'm feeling now, I think I could spend the rest of my life with you." The scene happens as in a dream: there are barely obstacles to the achievement of one's desires. And here, Celia is the object of desire: she is the embodiment of true love, what Izzy needs to learn before dying. While Celia looks up at Izzy after she's taken hold of the stone, she says: "Come on, don't be afraid, it's the best thing, it really is." Rebecca Prime says ironically: "you feel this is just the kind of thing Eve might have said to Adam in the Garden of Eden." Celia is a flesh-and-blood character but she remains the female archetype, the myth is never far from reality. Celia has no depth, no identity: first, she is Mira Sorvino on a wall, then she is Celia Burns in a dream, finally, she is Lulu in a film. The first two women are actresses, their job is to enter a director's wish, they are "invented by others" . This is confirmed by the four roles Celia played, which are the only indications we are given about her past.
The last one is Lulu. Lulu is a film project, a new version of Pandora's Box,
the play by Wedekind, and a reference to Louise Brooks in Pabst's film. In the
play, Lulu is a blank slate and men project their desires onto her. They invent
her, just as men invent the women they see in movies.
"I got the part. I'm Lulu." From this moment on, and certainly even before, Celia is Lulu. Catherine, the producer, defends the theory that Lulu is not a real character, that "she's an embodiment of primitive sexuality... and whatever evil she causes comes about by accident - because she's passive..." Celia disagrees: "She's impulsive, but she's not a destroyer... She doesn't care what people think of her. That's what gives her her power." To which Catherine argues that he created the play, and thus created Lulu, which Celia refuses. We see that Auster is conscious of the hollowness of Celia, of her passiveness. Everything might come from her, she does not want things to happen, she has no control over her power. Even when she refuses to bend to men's will, Lulu reacts and thus is still created by men. It seems that women are powerless in Auster's universe. Women are doomed to serve man, either Eve or Lilith, either mother or prostitute, women are fixed points around which men gravitate in Auster's world. Even if Auster seems to refuse to confine women in roles of muses inspiring men, he appears unable to make them live really.
Pandora is the first woman who disputed man's hegemony but Auster does not allow her her presupposed freedom of act. In the same fashion, Celia is the cause of Izzy's positive transformation, but she remains inactive. The film uses many devices to reveal that Celia is above all a woman before being an individual. We saw that she was attributed several names and that her image belonged to filmmakers more than to herself. The way she is dressed is also so connoted that it makes her an allegory rather than a person: her clean, bright and modern look indicates that she represents future, love and life. On the other hand, when she becomes Lulu, she embodies sexual desire, present time, she belongs to the animal kingdom and we see her in a leopard fur-lined evening gown, in a flesh-coloured cobra-print sarong, in a wedding dress with peacock feathers. Moreover, we already discussed the polysemy of her names that reveals they cannot define her precisely: she has no proper identity, her name belongs to Dr Van Horn or Izzy, who play with it (Celia: "I love hearing you say that. Say it again." ). Even her speech has a double meaning and thus does not totally belong to her. For instance, in the restaurant, three men look up and down at Celia with lust in their eyes, and when she asks "Have you decided on your orders", she does not control the different possibilities of receiving her words. The male locutor answers that he's "interested in other kinds of meat."
In the same way, In the Country of Last Things promises, at first sight, the story of a woman who narrates her life in the 'City of Destruction'. The text allows hope that her femininity is not an obstacle for her to follow a quest similarly to each Austerian protagonist, and even better, to tell it in her own words. However, from the very first sentence, we understand that her speech is not totally hers as another narrator tells her story: "These are the last things, she wrote." Auster confesses that it was hard for him to write this story that haunted him during more than fifteen years. Dedicated to his wife, the novel is consecrated to women, who inspired it. Sophie Vallas notices the steps of Anna's transformation: "You remember my lipsticks and outrageous earrings, my tight skirts and skimpy hems. I always loved to dress up and play the vamp..." Anna used to be woman, but the "terrible things happening to young girls" oblige her to undergo important changes affecting her femininity: "The first thing to go was my hair", "Ferdinand (...) said that I was beginning to look like a dyke", I looked so ugly that I didn't recognize myself anymore." Then, Anna puts on loose clothes to hide her "protuberances", she is attacked and escaping her assailants costs her the life of the child she carries, provoking irreparable damages to her womb. Finally, scars on her face make her look even more masculine. At the end of the story, as she cannot be a mother nor a vamp, she is eventually able to narrate her story. Sophie Vallas concludes: "Mutilée, dé-féminisée, Anna a payé le prix de son indépendance et peut conserver la parole : son récit survit, contrairement au livre de Sam."
To conclude this chapter, we note many similarities in the way women are treated by Auster in cinema and literature. The only differences to be underlined are formal, imposed by the medium conveying the stories. Auster resorts to polysemy, but also to specific film techniques such as lightings, clichés or mises en abyme to empty women of their individuality. He also needs to resort to the flatness of images to deprive Celia of tangible shape, because, as we mentioned, characters in cinema are from the start full morphemes (hence the numerous pictures of her that split her body in many directions when she shows Izzy her first parts as an actress). Nonetheless, however subtle his way to proceed is, Lulu on the Bridge fails to work as a good story. It is not an easy task to tell why a film is good or not, but we can suppose that Lulu on the Bridge's main drawback lies in rhythm. The film is very interesting to study, especially to someone who is familiar to Auster's universe, but its permanent slowness makes of it a very intimate work that fails to catch the spectator's attention and really enter Izzy's mind.
3) Lulu and the Cinema
We could have studied many other topics recurring in Auster's fiction - such
as disappearance, the fall or the omnipresent room - in order to try to answer
the question we raised: what led Auster to use cinema to tell Lulu on the Bridge?
The first two movies only demanded his collaboration, and we saw that Auster
managed to tell stories already told in his novels in granting his characters
the right to speak. Of course, it is out of the question to minimise the role
he played, but Lulu on the Bridge is more relevant to the extent that he had
total control over the story and the way to tell it.
Auster reveals that Lulu on the Bridge appeared to him as a film scenario: "I decided to write it as a novel. If the story was good, I said to myself, then it didn't matter how I told it. (...) when I stood up and examined what I had done so far, I realized it was not good. (...) it needed to be seen, not just read."
We can easily understand that cinema is more inclined to tell the story of a dream than literature. The spectator, as we mentioned in the second part, is like under hypnosis. Francis Vanoye quotes J. B. Brunius who assimilates the state of spectator to the dream:
La nuit de la salle équivaut pour la rétine à l'occlusion des paupières, à la nuit de l'inconscient - la foule qui vous entoure et vous isole, la musique délicieusement idiote, la raideur du cou nécessaire à l'orientation du regard, provoquent un état très voisin du demi-sommeil, - au mur s'inscrivent des lettres Blanches sur fond noir, dont le caractère hypnologique est évident. ( ) Contrairement au théâtre, le film, comme la pensée, comme le rêve, choisit des gestes, les éloigne ou les grossit, en élimine d'autres, passe plusieurs heures, plusieurs siècles, plusieurs kilomètres en quelques secondes, accélère, ralentit, s'arrête, retourne en arrière. Il est impossible d'imaginer plus fidèle miroir de la représentation mentale.
Auster needed the best illusion possible to lure the receiver, what he frequently
does in his novels. But he also needed people to know that it is 'just an image',
to quote Godard. Auster plays with the analogy (hardly controllable) made between
the image and what it represents.
We do not need to develop this chapter to understand that the use of cinema is more compelling for certain stories than for others. For instance, the role of smoke is very important in the 'eponymous' film. Smoke is a visual element, neither tangible nor immaterial, and certainly impossible to define with words. "Smoke can obscure things and make them illegible. Smoke is something that is never fixed, that is constantly changing shape. In the same way that the characters in the film keep changing as their lives intersect." The word is certainly evocative, but the omnipresence of smoke invades the screen and dazes the spectator more than any possible description. Smoke also links the scenes together as well as the characters.
In spite of his different attempts at cinema, Auster remains suspicious towards
the medium. To him, "movies are not real food the way books are."
We do not intend to defend cinema or literature at the other's expense, but
Auster's remark reveals that the story owes much to the medium delivering it.
As we said, the specific material of each medium implies certain techniques
and influences the reception behaviours. In a word, the medium transforms the
story and makes it become unique, even if the content is not completely new
(think of Baz Luhrman's Romeo and Juliette). Each adaptation creates a new story.
Contrarily to what is commonly thought, a story is not what is told. Our study
teaches us that if the structure of a story is independent from the techniques
that convey it, the story itself is transmissible provided that a storytelling
technique conveys it, using the system of signs at its disposal. Quoting Claude
Bremond, Francis Vanoye advances: "si le récit se visualise en devenant
film, se verbalise en devenant roman (
), ces transpositions n'affectent
pas la structure du récit, dont les signifiants demeurent identiques
dans chaque cas (des situations, des comportements, etc.). En revanche, si le
langage verbal, l'image mobile se " narrativisent ", s'ils servent
à raconter une histoire, ils doivent plier leur système d'expression
à une structure temporelle, se donner un jeu d'articulation qui reproduit,
phase après phase, une chronologie."
As Vanoye does, we can discuss Bremond's assertions and wonder if it is relevant to postulate the existence of narrative structures prior to the moment the story is told, before it is narrated by the medium. This raises linguistic problems questioning the links between thought and language. On the other hand, these questions confirm that a story cannot exist without a medium to tell it. Whatever the form of the story is before it is expressed, the story remains latent, potential and is finally actualised when seized by storytelling techniques.
Studying the interference that fill or haunt Auster's works, be they cinematic
or literary, enables us to affirm that if he is always telling the same story,
every story is unique. In Moon Palace, Auster describes Zimmer, Marco's friend,
in a few lines, just enough to let us know that he "had been in love with
the same person for the past two or three years, a girl by the name of Anna
Bloom or Blume..." Zimmer is also the name of the protagonist of Auster's
last novel, The Book of Illusions. Zimmer means room in German, another of Auster's
obsessions to be found in the three novels of The New York Trilogy. There, the
shadow of Auster appears and disappears, hangs over Leviathan through Peter
Aaron's initials, inhabits Smoke in the shape of Paul Benjamin, penetrates every
dialogue of Lulu on the Bridge. The recurring apparitions of the ghosts of prestigious
literary predecessors such as Emerson, Thoreau, Melville or Poe and historical
characters such as Marco Polo, Sir Walter Raleigh end up making of every work
the necessary piece of a whole.
Every story is self-sufficient but the interference with other works enlighten its reception and reveal the complexity of Auster's universe. Heterodiegetic elements come to enrich the understanding of his works without disrupting the diegesis. "Endogeneity and metafiction", François Gavillon's last chapter, reveals that every book is born from the previous one, fed by internal and external intertextuality, enlivened with autobiographical anecdotes. This constant exchange between fiction and reality, interior and exterior proves that a story can be opened and closed, unique and multiple at the same time.
Studying interference between novels and movies enables us to decipher the
numerous bridges linking the different stories of the 'Auster constellation'
as well as it reveals the particularities of each. Storytelling is an art. Auster
is doubtless "among the masters" .
La vie a besoin d'illusions, c'est-à-dire de non-vérités
tenues pour des vérités.
The first two chapters helped us define the mechanisms that structure and form stories. We saw that a story needed a source and an end, embodied by the author and the addressee. Our first part consisted of describing the numerous storytelling devices at stake in movies. The enumeration of the various techniques specific to cinematic storytelling enabled us to understand how movies actualise stories but also abide by their contingencies. In the second section, we analysed the indispensable participation of the receiver, revealing the numerous implications imposed by interpretative and affective reception. These questions led us to wonder if the use of cinema to tell Smoke, Blue in the Face and Lulu on the Bridge was compelling. Our parallel studies of several elements recurring in Auster's films and writings showed that if the structures are very similar, the stories in themselves are different because depending on the material of the medium conveying them.
The emotional specificity of cinema is certainly the principal striking element we noticed in the reception of stories. One cannot deny that Auster's films are doubtless lighter than his novels, as he confesses it himself. Many themes are to be found in both media, and especially in Lulu on the Bridge, but most of these themes remain fleeting allusions in the movies. Of course, our work was not supposed to enumerate all the differences that exist between literature and cinema, but the study of interference in Auster's works helped us figure out some specific characteristics of storytelling in cinema thanks to comparison.
A deeper study of cinema's particularities, such as discontinuity or the relation between image and time (Deleuze in L'Image-Temps, Metz: "l'image est toujours au présent" ), would be an interesting complementary work to our thesis. However, our work is complete enough to try and answer our first and recurring problematic: what is a story in Auster's movies?
A story is just a "recital of events" that pretends to be true, more precisely a recital of events that both author and addressee pretend believing as true. Whenever the story is spoiled by the author's avowal that it is 'just a story' - what Auster is fond of - the recital of events tells itself telling, breaks the illusion. The specificity of cinema is that the medium is made of sounds and images. Cinema is closer to the real than literature, and it is problematic since Auster's written narratives always ask for the reader's distance. The necessity to recall that it is 'only a movie', that "Ceci n'est pas une pipe", underlines and increases - more than neutralises - the illusive powers of images. Cinematic images resemble their referents so much that the distinction between the original and the copy becomes rather impossible. David Zimmer says in The Book of Illusions: "No matter how beautiful or hypnotic the images sometimes were, they never satisfied me as powerfully as words did. Too much was given, I felt, not enough was left to the viewer's imagination, and the paradox was that the closer movies came to simulating reality, the worse they failed at representing the world - which is in us as much as it is around us."
In some interviews, Auster used similar words to assert he would not make another attempt at cinema after Blue in the Face but he finally shot Lulu on the Bridge. We can also notice that, ironically, his last movie is about the illusion created by cinema. It seems that Auster is unable to tell a story without betraying the narrative conventions that demand that addressees and authors pretend they believe in the truth of the story told. Auster's works, be them movies or novels, inherit from the baroque movement, which pointed at the theatrical illusion in order to unveil it.
On the one hand, storytelling depends on its medium because the medium imposes formal and structural rules to the storyteller. On the other hand, storytelling is independent from its medium because - especially in Auster's case - the storyteller is free to twist the rules set by the characteristics of the medium. However, we cannot conclude that Auster refuses to tell stories because he chooses to disclose their mechanisms. Similarly to Wolfgang Iser quoted by Martine Joly, we shall not try and define the concept of 'story' as an answer to an ontological question. The story in itself does not exist if not told, if not communicated: "l'argument ontologique doit être remplacé par un argument fonctionnaliste : entre fiction et réalité, le rapport n'est plus d'être mais de communication." In a word, Auster's cinema is above all the story of a story. The process of mise en abyme enables the receiver to be at once in and out of the story, at once under its spell and distant from it.
This thesis's ambition was to understand how cinema actualised Auster's stories,
especially when the latter presents so many storytellers in his works. By endlessly
shattering the clues of blurred plots, by perpetually luring the spectator,
Auster's movies provoke a self-reflexive mise en abyme questioning the medium
itself. His films play with the receivers, promising them a story that ends
up being their own story, this of a spectator watching himself looking at something.
And this circular system also encompasses the narrator, told by the story he
The ceaseless reflexivity of Auster's storytelling echoes his characters' quests for identity. The problem is that Auster is at once heir of Spinoza and Emerson: he believes in a immanent self possessing the world in himself ("Each man, therefore, is the entire world, bearing within his genes a memory of all mankind. Or, as Leibniz put it: 'Every living substance is a perpetual living mirror of the universe.'" ), and at the same time he is convinced that the self is necessarily doomed to find in others what lacks for it to be complete. We saw in the chapter dedicated to women that fusion with the other is never total, never entirely actualised, hence the return to the self, hence the endless reflexivity between individuals.
The impossible aim of Austerian heroes mirrors the complex relation existing between the author and his work, as well as between the work and its addressee. It seems that Auster creates worlds with specific rules just in order to infringe them. He enjoys trespassing the limits imposed by the diegesis without breaking the magic of the story. And even if the shadow of Sisyphus hangs over the reciprocal task of the storyteller and the story-receiver, Auster's message finally relies on hope. At the end of In the Country of Last Things, Anna says: "Once we get to where we are going, I will try to write to you again, I promise."
In 'the author's foreword' of Where I'm Calling From, Raymond Carver says: "First the glimpse. Then the glimpse given life, turned into something that will illuminate the moment and just maybe lock it indelibly into the reader's consciousness. Make it part of the reader's own experience, as Hemingway so nicely put it. Forever, the writer hopes. Forever."
Auster exposes the illusion maintained by storytellers as the only truth they
can deliver. Illusion as a truth; this antiphrasis appears as the best definition
of storytelling in Paul Auster's movies.
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Web site sources:
LIST OF FILMS
Blue in the Face
Lulu on the Bridge
The Centre of the World
Auggie Wren's Christmas Story: p. 3, 5, 15, 22, 27, 50, 69, 79, 80, 84, 85, 86, 87, 88.
City of Glass: p. 18, 19, 21, 60, 63, 65, 77, 87, 92.
Femininity: p. 92, 98.
Fiction: p. 5, 6, 7, 10, 11, 12, 15, 18, 19, 32, 36, 41, 46, 55, 56, 63, 72, 87, 89, 99, 102, 107.
Ghosts: p. 72, 78, 102.
Identity: p. 14, 16, 18, 19, 23, 47, 48, 74, 76, 77, 85, 86, 87, 92, 96, 97, 107.
In the Country of Last Things: p. 18, 54, 70, 85, 87, 91, 95, 98, 108.
Interpretation: p. 7, 24, 33, 39, 49, 50, 54, 62, 63, 66, 78, 83.
The Invention of Solitude: p. 21, 73, 75, 77, 86, 91.
The Locked Room: p. 92, 93.
Mulholland Drive: p. 40.
Money: p. 26, 51.
Moon Palace : p. 18, 73, 76, 91, 93, 102.
The Music of chance: p. 26, 62.
The New York Trilogy : p. 11, 72, 87, 102.
Timbuktu: p. 85.
Trust: p. 51, 54.
Truth: p. 5, 15, 19, 25, 27, 36, 40, 63, 66, 79, 83, 84, 85, 86, 87, 106, 108.
Women: p. 67, 91, 92, 93, 94, 96, 97, 98, 99, 107.
Barthes, Roland: p. 22, 34, 37, 42, 53, 58, 65, 66, 86, 94.
Baudrillard, Jean: p. 65.
Blanchot, Maurice: p. 86.
Brooks, Louise : p. 96.
Camus, Albert: p. 73.
Carver, Raymond: p. 108.
Deleuze, Gilles: p. 63, 105.
Duperray, Annick: p. 91.
Eco, Umberto: p. 49, 50, 51, 52, 53, 54.
Eisenstein, Sergueï: p. 29, 44.
Gardies, André: p. 22, 23, 39, 41, 42, 55, 88, 89.
Gaudreault, André, Jost, François: p. 31, 35, 55.
Gavillon, François: p. 75, 102.
Jabès, Edmond: p. 65.
Lotman, Iouri: p. 24.
Lynch, David: p. 40.
Metz, Christian: p. 34, 35, 40, 41, 57, 105.
Odin, Roger: p. 34, 49, 55, 56, 57, 90.
Sontag, Suzan: p. 66, 83.
Vallas, Sophie: p. 91, 92, 93, 98.
Vanoye, Francis: p. 100, 101.
Wedekind: p. 96.
I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Mrs Fabre who advised me patiently during two years, to Melany and Ulrich, whose help was invaluable, and finally to Nicole, Shirley and Bertrand for their unconditional support.