Characterization in American Independent Cinema

A couple of years ago I wrote a PhD dissertation at the University of Wisconsin-Madison called Characterization in American Independent Cinema. In it, I argued that characterization in cinema is a process of social cognition, much like our ordinary process of making sense of others in our everyday lives, and further applied this approach to thinking about characterization to an analysis of how indie films make character a central appeal of their storytelling. I'm now in the middle of turning this into a book. In the process, I am losing much of the theoretical discussions of characterization and adding some new parts about independent cinema's forms, institutions, and culture. I hope to make the cognitivist characterization portions into another book someday that is broader than just indie cinema (and broader than just cinema, for that matter), after I get the chance to do more systematic research into issues in social psychology that I still need to know more about. I decided to focus more on the indie stuff now mainly because it seemed that way more people are interested in it, and it excites me more to write a book that people want to read.

Occasionally people ask me to send them chapters of the diss, and I thought it might be a good idea to publish it on the internet, especially since the more theoretical portions aren't going to see the light of day in any other form in the near future. So I have uploaded the chapters to Scribd. Here are links, with brief additional info:

Title page

Chapter 1: Introduction (Headings: pg. 1 Independent Cinema and Character; pg. 4 Character, Person, and Self; pg. 17 A Cognitive Theory of Characterization: Intuitive and Counterintuitive; pg. 21 Character and Characterization; pg. 27 What About Subjective Narration?; pg. 34 Making Sense of American Independent Cinema [I would start reading here if you're into indie cinema but not so much into cognitive film theory]; pg 36 Auteurs, Spririts, etc.; pg. 39 Hollywood/ Off-Hollywood, Art Cinema/Independent Cinema; pg. 43 Viewing Strategies; pg. 66 Conclusion.)

Chapter 2: Typing (This chapter is about how we categorize characters into myriad types; Headings: pg. 77 Traits and Types; pg. 85 Stereotypes; pg. 93 Social and Genre Types; pg. 99 Typing in Process: Passion Fish; pg. 112 Conclusion. Some of the ideas in this chapter turn up again in an article I wrote for a special issue of Film Criticism on complex narratives, "Character and Complexity in American Independent cinema: Passion Fish and 21 Grams" [pdf].)

Chapter 3: Mindreading (This chapter is about how we predict and explain the behavior of characters by inferring mental states such as beliefs and desires--some experts call this mindreading. Headings: pg. 116 Mindreading: Character Psychology Inferences and Judgments; pg. 121 Folk Psychology; pg. 135 Causal Attribution; pg. 151 Heuristics of Social Judgment; pg. 157 Conclusion: Mindreading in American Independent Cinema.)

Chapter 4: Emotion Expressions (This one begins with a quotation from Fritz Lang that I really like, which reads in part, "Film has revealed to us the human face with unexampled clarity in its tragic as well as grotesque, threatening as well as blessed expression." Headings: pg. 163 Character Emotions; pg. 164 The Face; pg. 169 The Voice; pg. 172 Emotion Expressions: A Closer Look; pg. 176 Problems in Expression Recognition; pg. 182 Emotion Expressions in Film; pg. 186 Facial Expressions in the Construction of Character: Welcome to the Dollhouse and Hard Eight; pg. 196 Conclusion: Combining Appeals. Some of the ideas in this chapter, along with some of the preceding one, found their way into an article in Film Studies: An International Review, "Characterization as Social Cognition in Welcome to the Dollhouse" [pdf].)

Chapter 5: Characterization in Style (I argue in this chapter, among other things, that all audiovisual technique in a narrative film can be understood to have a characterizing function. I doubt that my advisor really buys this idea but he never put up a fuss about it. Headings: pg. 203 The Challenge of Style; pg. 204 Style and Character in History; pg. 212 Characterizing in Style: Story and Self; pg. 226 Levels of Characterization in Style; pg. 242 Style and Character in Todd Haynes' Safe; pg. 260 Conclusion.)

Chapter 6: Infinite Variety: Variables of Characterization (In this chapter I offer a typology of characterization variables along three axes, depth, complexity,and change. I argue, counterintuitively, that independent cinema characters or characterizations are often shallow rather than deep, straightforward rather than complex, and static rather than changing. One way of creating interesting characters is by keeping the audience at a distance from them, forbidding us access to their psychology, and refusing to have them follow the typical Hollywood hero's trajectory toward self-knowledge and revelation. Headings: pg. 268 Round and Flat; pg. 274 Narration and Characterization; pg. 277 Variable 1: Depth; pg. 294 Variable 2: Complexity; pg. 310 Variable 3: Change; pg. 324 Conclusion.)


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