Hit/Miss: Evolving Narratives and the Semiotics of the Blockbuster

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The high-budget, visual-effects-laden Hollywood blockbuster film is among the most popular entertainments of the modern era. While viewing practices continue to change and evolve, the major studios still push out some twenty or thirty films each year with budgets exceeding US$10 million. The blockbuster film is often pushed to the boundaries of film studies as populist escapism. This paper seeks to position the blockbuster film as the ideal indicator of cinematic trends, demonstrating that these films are changing the very nature of narrative.

Murray (2008) recognises the stagnation of adaptation theory into ‘a seemingly endless stream of comparative case-studies of print and screen versions of individual texts’ (p. 4). ‘[S]uch studies,’ she writes, ‘routinely produce conclusions that provide in fact no conclusion at all’ (ibid.). The findings of these comparative studies are simply ‘that there are similarities between the two mediums, but also differences’ (ibid.). Murray determines that the problem is primarily with the unwillingness of adaptation scholars to situate the process of adaptation within any kind of social, cultural, economic or industrial context (ibid., p. 5). Raitt (2010) provides suggestions for new ways of appreciating adapted texts in terms of an active, rather than passive, receiver, which he dubs the ‘reader/viewer.’ When discussing adaptations, Raitt recalls the ‘intersection,’ a subset of adaptation first described by Dudley Andrew:

‘An “intersection” connotes a degree of selection and foregrounding of the original text, and cinematic creativity, which allows the film to stand as a work of art not repeatable by other filmmakers.’ (Raitt, p. 48)

This kind of adaptation is to be differentiated, Raitt iterates, from a ‘translation’ or ‘inter-semiotic transposition,’ which might adhere much more rigorously to the beats or structure of the source material (ibid.). The film Clue, then, works in part as an ‘intersection,’ as it maintains the dynamic and spirit of the board game, but also because it adheres to the murder mystery genre and adds its own cinematic take thereon. The story is oriented around the dynamic of the board game, and any creative flourishes – for example, Wadsworth the butler and Yvette the maid – only further allow the narrative to progress according to the game’s mandate. Take as an example Yvette, the archetypal seductive, buxom French maid. Her charms seem, predictably, to settle on and influence the male characters. But it is only in her murder that her role in the plot becomes clear, depending on which of the three endings the audience believes. In one ending, it is revealed that Yvette was formerly an escort in the employ of Miss Scarlet, a noted Washington madam. Miss Scarlet committed the murders to maintain the blackmail database she had obtained through the exploitation of her clients. In another ending, it is revealed that Yvette had an affair with Mrs. White’s husband, motivating the older woman to murder them both.

The notion of the ‘spectacle’ has been explored previously by writers such as Guy Debord and Slavoj Žižek. First published in 1967, Debord’s (1983) Society of the Spectacle is renowned as the first ever deep thought about the effects of mass media. Debord began a clear philosophical delineation between the real, lived experience, and the layer of mediated communication dispersed by print, television and radio.

‘The spectacle obliterates the boundaries between self and world by crushing the self besieged by the presence-absence of the world and it obliterates the boundaries between true and false by driving all lived truth below the real presence of fraud ensured by the organization of appearance.’ (p. 219).

This reconception of lived experience as actual and simulated cleared a path for media theorists such as Marshall McLuhan and Jean Baudrillard, whose observations about the First Gulf War changed the global comprehension of both journalism and conflict. Slavoj Žižek (2002) went on to compare the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre to a Hollywood movie:

‘[W]hat happened on September 11 was that this fantasmatic screen apparition entered our reality. It is not that reality entered our image: the image entered and shattered our reality (i.e. the symbolic coordinates which determine what we experience as reality).’ (p. 16)

The introduction of spectacle into cinematic representation began with the death of the Hollywood New Wave discussed earlier. However, with the perpetuation of such radical conceptions of the image and reality, it is little wonder that the spectacle has survived as a staple of cinematic representation. Baudrillard’s term ‘the hyperreal’ has been used by cinema writers like King and Isaacs to observe changes in cinematic production and reception. King (2000) provides a comprehensive basis for any discussion of spectacle and cinema, strongly arguing that spectacle has not diminished narrative as many have argued, but rather has enhanced it.

This research takes King’s ideas one step further in saying that contemporary cinematic narrative is contingent on special effects, rather than merely embellished by them.

[extract]

Binns, D. (2014). Hit / miss: Evolving narratives and the semiotics of the blockbuster. Southern Semiotic Review, Issue 4. Available here.

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